16 February 2023
There are high hopes that the Rt Hon Chris Skidmore MP’s Mission Zero report, published in early January 2023, will help persuade the UK Government to create the conditions for a future economy that is fit for purpose in the climate and nature emergencies we face.
This independent review of Net Zero is timely and welcome, because it reaffirms unequivocally that climate action is an economic imperative. Influential voices endorsing the report include Lord Nicholas Stern, author of the ground-breaking 2006 Stern Review setting out the economic case for climate action, and UK100, which said Mission Zero “would help communities maximise the economic and social benefits of Net Zero while making the most cost-effective use of resources.”
Several Climate Commissions in the Place-based Climate Action Network (PCAN) contributed to the call for evidence last October. I’m part of the Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission secretariat and our response set out the Commission’s position that the major obstacles to climate action are a lack of consistent regulations, policies and resources, all of which need to be in place to enable the economy to thrive.
The report can be viewed through three quite different lenses. In one, it is a straightforward narrative: the review asked, “How can the UK simultaneously deliver net zero carbon and economic growth?” and, following “one of the largest engagement exercises on net zero in the UK”, the answer came back loud and clear: “Net zero is the growth opportunity of the 21st century”.
In another lens, it is a vehement rebuttal to the Truss/Rees-Mogg vision of an economy freed from the shackles of an imagined ‘Anti-Growth Coalition’. Bob Ward, Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Research Institute, did not pull punches on this point, saying, “This review was set up by Liz Truss to appease a tiny lobby of Conservative MPs who have been spreading misinformation about the UK’s net zero climate target. But the report published today has demolished their false claims that climate policies hurt the UK’s economy. In fact, the drive for net zero is reducing our dependence on ruinously expensive fossil fuels and instead is generating new jobs and growth across the economy.”
Viewed through the third lens, Skidmore’s report is a comprehensive pitch for a climate-focused election manifesto: environmentally minded politicians of all parties are acutely aware of how important the issue is becoming for voters, with Labour MPs putting pressure on Keir Starmer and parliamentarians in the Conservative Environment Network pushing the government for a coherent message.
What is missing from the source material is a dose of Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, identifying the social foundations and environmental ceiling between which all economic prosperity must arise. There is some reassurance in the mission to “embed nature and habitat restoration…maximising co-benefits for climate and nature wherever possible”, although this does imply that carbon reduction is the mission and nature the co-beneficiary. Since the UK is still falling well short against its biodiversity targets, there is a need for a more sure-footed integration of carbon and ecological outcomes across government policy than the report seems to offer.
Two of the priority missions are particularly relevant to the emerging planning system reforms: “pave the way for onshore wind deployment” and “unblocking the planning system”. (The latter is something that Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission are currently tackling by preparing a response to the government’s consultation on revising the National Planning Policy Framework.)
Mission Zero’s proposed changes relating to making it easier for communities to initiate and support applications for wind energy appear timid and unlikely to result in significantly more schemes coming forward. We need to continue to challenge the government’s tendency to see planning as a barrier to action and deregulation as the solution. There is a need for strong national policies that require developers to act and empower local authorities to pursue ambitious plans. It is, however, heartening that the report calls for a ‘net zero test’ to be introduced into the planning system.
The missions calling for commitment to carbon capture and storage, hydrogen networks and a new fleet of nuclear energy plants are also likely to attract differences of opinion. The Yorkshire and Humber region has a long legacy of carbon intensive industries; transforming these for a zero-carbon future is a great economic opportunity. But this not without risks, including a dependence on technologies not yet proven at scale and a shortage of suitably skilled labour.
Net zero cities
An interesting recommendation is to “fully back at least one trailblazer net zero city, local authority and community, with the aim for these places to reach net zero by 2030”. At least 150 local authorities in England, including some within Yorkshire and Humber, already have local net zero targets for 2030, and a key concern has been lack of consistent, cross-sector government backing to implement them. While supporting one trailblazer is clearly welcome, this must be put in perspective by how rapidly so many authorities are wishing to progress and require support.
The report clearly reaffirms the role of local government, a move greatly welcomed by UK100, the network of local authorities who want to go faster on net zero, and there is also an opportunity here for PCAN to demonstrate the extent of collaboration between places that already exists (through its PCAN Plus Network, for example, and of course through individual climate commissions). But voluntary place-based climate commissions can only do so much, as a recent evaluation report illustrated; local authorities will need real injections of resources to be able to do so at the pace and scale required.
The report's recommendations span government departments and industrial sectors and demand joined up thinking and legislative measures. Perhaps most of all, they amount to a programme that – to quote our own Climate Action Plan – “treats the emergency as an emergency”. In short, Skidmore's Mission Zero demands that government take an interventionist approach to making the net zero economy happen. This will require real buy-in and action from HM Treasury that is swift to arrive and stays for the long haul.
Andrew Wood is Senior Engagement and Impact Officer for Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission
Photo: Benjamin Elliott, Unsplash