The UK can be proud of its role in the fight against climate change. We were the first major economy to set into law the commitment to reach net zero by 2050, a significant moment of statecraft and global leadership. That commitment helped to spur more than 140 other countries to commit to their own net-zero targets.

But now that the debate on whether we should act has been won, we face new challenges. How can we encourage the necessary innovation to meet our targets, without reverting to mere hope that future technologies will reduce emissions? And with the UK only responsible for one per cent of emissions, how can we truly drive down global emissions while retaining the political motivation – and support – for the required action at home?

These are the questions the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBI) has sought to answer in our new report Reimagining the UK’s Net-Zero Strategy

Firstly, the context. While the UK has successfully met its first three carbon budgets and is on track to exceed the fourth, we are currently not on track to meet our long-term climate goals. This was confirmed in the Climate Change Committee’s 2023 assessment which expressed doubts about meeting the 2030 international climate target (the NDC) and the sixth carbon budget for 2033-2037.

What this tells us is that we need new and innovative solutions, especially, but not only, in challenging sectors like agriculture and aviation where widely scalable solutions are currently lacking. New technologies will be critical for the UK to achieve its long-term goals, particularly if we want to avoid imposing undue costs on citizens.

Vital to this will be amending the Climate Change Act of 2008. While it was groundbreaking for its time, it isn’t set up to foster the conditions that will develop and deliver the innovative solutions and technologies required to reach net zero.   

The Act currently has no requirement for governments to drive climate innovation, and little mandate for the supporting policies that would nurture new solutions. We need it to incentivise governments to explore new innovations and create the investment conditions to develop and support new climate solutions.  

Government should also learn the lesson of the High Court ruling earlier this month. Following legal action taken against the government, the High Court ruled that the government policies on which future budgets were based relied too much on technologies that were yet to be proven.  

This is because there is currently no ability within the legislative framework to accommodate uncertainty about the new technologies that will drive the long-term transition to net zero.  It makes no sense that government officials compiling the plans for meeting future targets more than ten years away can only consider the emissions-reducing technologies available right now. Given the rapid pace of technological change, it’s reasonable to acknowledge some uncertainty and rely on future innovation, especially for meeting carbon budgets well into the future.  

The second challenge is that emissions are trending down in jurisdictions like the UK and EU but rising quickly in developing countries.  The UK’s approach only addresses emissions sources within the UK’s borders. And because the Act is focused solely on the UK’s own transition to net zero, it largely ignores the broader problem of reducing global emissions.   

The focus of climate efforts in the UK – supported by an amended Climate Change Act – needs to expand to include greater global collaboration, including supporting the deployment of the clean technology and new innovative solutions that will allow developing countries to continue to grow while keeping emissions in check.  

 Developing and deploying clean technologies globally would be a significant contribution to the global climate challenge, but the Act as currently structured does not recognise this. 

We are not advocating giving governments a free pass to just cross their fingers and hope technology will deliver, nor that the policies and proposals for meeting budgets rely too heavily on new solutions that are yet to be developed.  However, we believe that an amendment could be crafted to allow greater flexibility in later budgets than in near-term ones, without handing over a free pass.  Without this, we risk forcing avoidable economic and fiscal costs from older technologies onto society and the economy. 

The journey to net zero is complex, requiring both innovative solutions and a global perspective. As the UK continues to lead in climate action, enhancing the Climate Change Act to foster future-focused innovation and the development of new solutions that can be deployed globally is crucial. 

Failing to do so will set us up to fail.

Lindy Fursman is Director of Climate and Energy Policy at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change 

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