Independent Review of Net Zero

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:21 pm on 9 February 2023.

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Photo of Wera Hobhouse Wera Hobhouse Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport), Liberal Democrat Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 1:21, 9 February 2023

It is a pleasure to follow Sir Edward Leigh, because it is important to hear where people’s concerns are. The report sets out the fact that we must overcome our concerns because we have no option: we need to reach net zero. The House knows how passionate I am about making sure that this country reaches its net zero targets.

While recent news has overwhelmed us with the tragedies of war and natural disasters, the climate emergency continues to threaten our global future. We have to act together, in solidarity. I welcome the independent review of net zero. It is uncompromising in its demand that the Government get a grip and actually deliver on the targets they have set themselves. Last year, the Climate Change Committee made a similar point: tangible progress now lags badly behind the country’s net zero ambitions.

We are on course to overshoot our target level of greenhouse gas emissions twofold. The CCC had previously set the Government several targets for 2022 to stay on course for net zero by 2050; only a fifth of them have been achieved. This is an unforgivable underperformance and shows that the Conservative Government’s commitment to net zero is lukewarm at best. We need to do a lot more persuasion. It is about winning hearts and minds, not just in this House but in our local communities, to persuade people that we need to get to net zero. The commitment has to be more than lukewarm: it has to be hot and passionate. We want to get to net zero.

Too many people still treat our net zero targets like a bus that we can miss and then catch another. We must understand that there will be no next time if we do not reach net zero by 2050—and that means net zero globally. Climate change is already leading to chaotic consequences in our societies. Since 1950, the global number of floods has increased by a factor of 15 and wildfires have increased by a factor of seven. We have seen droughts and famine across east Africa, floods in Pakistan and a heatwave in the UK. The dangers of missing net zero are staring us right in the face. The difference in limiting global warming to 1.5°C instead of 2° would save around 420 million people from exposure to extreme heatwaves.

Our Government should be leading by example—I say that for the third time now. We are an advanced economy. We cannot tell economies that are less advanced that they have to get to net zero but our contribution is so tiny that it does not matter. It matters that we lead by example. I am so glad we have a report that says that net zero is not only good for the planet but makes sense economically. We will miss out hugely if we do not really get to grips with this and deliver on the targets. We must set ourselves ambitious targets and be very passionate and hot about them, not just lukewarm. What message does it send to the rest of the world when our advanced economy does not meet its obligations in the global fight to keep temperature rises below 1.5°?

The independent review recognises that the Government’s tepid approach to net zero means the UK is losing out on green investment. This concern is shared by the Confederation of British Industry and many renewable energy companies, such as Equinor, SSE and Vattenfall. The USA and the EU are developing huge financial packages to encourage green investment, and China is currently the biggest investor in renewable energy, while our Government are still playing to the tune of the oil and gas giants. The UK lags behind all but one of its G7 counterparts in investment in green infrastructure and jobs. It is a massive missed opportunity.

We are in a cost of living crisis because of our reliance on gas and oil. The Government fail to recognise that the fastest and cheapest way to guarantee energy security is to phase out oil and gas rather than invest in more exploration and extraction. I welcome the fact that we now have the new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero—that the two have been put together—because so much of energy security depends on our getting to net zero and phasing out our reliance on gas and oil.

I am pleased that the net zero review recommends that the Government support the Local Electricity Bill. The lack of growth in community energy in the past seven years is a significant missed opportunity. Its major strength is its connection to people and places. It engages people in energy systems and makes that important connection so that we win hearts and minds and people see the advantages of changing. I absolutely agree that change is difficult and we need to get people behind the net zero agenda.

In my Bath constituency, Bath and West Community Energy has installed enough renewable energy to power nearly 4,500 homes. Many of the projects are installed in local school and community buildings. The energy is net zero and far cheaper than gas and oil, but the huge potential for more community energy cannot be realised because current energy market and licensing rules mean that community energy schemes face high grid-access costs.

The Local Electricity Bill would reform the energy market to empower community-owned and run schemes to sell local renewable energy directly to households and businesses. It would make new community energy businesses viable, and those businesses would keep significant additional value within local economies by bypassing large utilities. It is incomprehensible to me why the Government are dragging their feet on enacting this vital change to help an industry that has so much potential not only in reaching net zero but in doing exactly as we are doing with this debate—aiming to win hearts and minds and make people and politicians aware of how important net zero is and how deliverable and advantageous for our society it will ultimately be.

The transition to net zero must be at the heart of every Government policy if we are to hit our targets. The Climate Change Committee has criticised the lack of joined-up thinking on net zero in the Government. Last year, I spoke to a group of sub-national transport bodies that noted the lack of synergy between the Department for Transport and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in the development of sustainable land planning principles. That is just one example of siloed thinking in the Government.

I agree with the review that there needs to be a group with actual power that can work across Government to ensure that net zero is considered in every policy decision. A net zero delivery authority, as outlined in a recent Policy Connect paper, could do exactly that. Such a public body should be placed on a statutory footing and operate at arm’s length from the Government to provide assurance to business and people about its longevity and clout. It would be tasked with monitoring and accelerating the delivery of key net zero strategies.

The Government would set the authority’s objectives, rules and principles of operation and the authority would then be responsible for delivery within that framework. I am glad that we have already discussed that this afternoon. [Interruption.] I hope the Minister is listening, because he might be involved in setting up such an authority. I am looking forward to progress with that.

A net zero delivery authority would co-ordinate the delivery of Government strategies between local and national Government. That, too, is incredibly important and has already been mentioned. The delivery of many of our net zero targets should be devolved to local areas, because local people know best, and the delivery of net zero can be so much better achieved through local authorities. The authority would gather information and understanding about local delivery from local government and businesses to inform the national strategy. It would work with partner organisations and national bodies to inform both national and local delivery strategies for decarbonisation.

However, a net zero delivery authority is not enough, which is why we, as Liberal Democrats, are proposing a net zero action plan, backed by a £150 billion public investment programme to fire up progress to net zero and help the UK become a global leader in future technologies. What a net zero delivery authority could do is avoid policy inconsistency and ensure total focus within Government on the climate emergency.

The net zero transition will impact every aspect of our lives. The evidence is clear that the costs of combating the climate emergency are dwarfed by the consequences of inaction. We must all work together to deliver the net zero transition as efficiently and sustainably as possible. If we do not do so, we risk losing the battle to preserve our climate, the future of our country and the wellbeing of our people.