Net Zero Strategy: We Can Have Cake & Eat It

For years, going green was inextricably bound up with a sense that we have to sacrifice the things we love. But this strategy shows how we can build back greener, without so much as a hair shirt in sight. In 2050, we will still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes, but our cars will be electric gliding silently around our cities, our planes will be zero emission allowing us to fly guilt-free, and our homes will be heated by cheap reliable power drawn from the winds of the North Sea. And everywhere you look, in every part of our United Kingdom, there will be jobs. Good jobs, green jobs, well-paid jobs, levelling up our country while squashing down our carbon emissions.”

More cakeism from our prime minister, this time in his foreword to the Government’s Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener (19 October 2021).

The document is of course hugely important. Together with the Government’s heat and buildings strategy published the same day, this is the detailed plan, presented to Parliament pursuant to the Climate Change Act 2008, which sets out how our country will achieve its net zero carbon target by 2050. But it has a wider role ahead of next month’s COP 26 event in Glasgow, both pour encourager les autres and, more formally, to be “submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as the UK’s second Long Term Low Greenhouse Gas Emission Development Strategy under the Paris Agreement.

It’s a detailed document, 368 pages – full of initiatives, science, business exhortation, more acronyms than you could shake a stick at and a fair degree of management consultancy/policy wonk speak (for instance, repeated use of “no regrets” and “low regrets” options terminology). After an evening’s scrolling I’m in no place to determine whether it’s brilliant or bonkers in its world-leading optimism. In fact, as someone always in need of a mental map as to how these sorts of strategy fit into the wider international and national legislative and policy framework, it was a relief to get to the technical annex (from page 306) and the client science annex (from page 362), which made for refreshingly clear if bracing reading.

The document largely dismisses any idea that there are any hard choices ahead. We have all seen the media gossip as to internal differences of view within the Conservative party, for instance UK meat tax and frequent-flyer levy proposals briefly published then deleted (Guardian, 20 October 2021) and Tempers fray as Tories fail to unite for Cop26 climate talks (The Times, 23 October 2021). The withdrawn BEIS research paper Net Zero: principles for successful behaviour change initiatives – key principles from past government-led behavioural change and public engagement initiatives makes interesting reading but is hardly any smoking gun.

The lack of any emphasis being given to the planning system as a mechanism for helping to deliver change and regulate against unwelcome outcomes is telling. I was dutifully gathering the snippets but I then read this very good piece by Michael Donnelly which pieces them together very much how I would have liked to have done: Net zero strategy promises to ’embed’ transport decarbonisation in spatial planning and reiterates NPPF review (Planning magazine, 20 October, behind paywall).

The fullest and most direct reference to planning in the whole strategy is probably on page 267:

National planning policies already recognise the importance of sustainable development and make clear that reducing carbon emissions should be considered in planning and decision making. The National Model Design Code provides tools and guidance for local planning authorities to help ensure developments respond to the impacts of climate change, are energy efficient, embed circular economy principles, and reduce carbon emissions. The government is considering how the planning system can further support our commitment to reaching net zero. We will make sure that the reformed planning system supports our efforts to combat climate change and help bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. For example, as part of our programme of planning reform we intend to review the National Planning Policy Framework to make sure it contributes to climate change mitigation and adaptation as fully as possible.”

There is no indication of how the planning system can help, or when the NPPF is to be reviewed. Of course the twin dangers are of, on the one hand, a set of changes in the near future that address net zero and then a further set of changes to reflect whichever changed direction planning reform more generally is to embark upon following the pause to the white paper thinking, and, on the other hand, a long long wait, whilst everything is knitted together.

The role of the planning system is of course intertwined with the various proposals within the Environment Bill, given plenty of airtime in the document, and, after all this is policy bingo, there are plenty of references to levelling up.

The present vacuum ahead of any hard news on the NPPF or wider reforms is of course being filled with noise, suggestions, exhortations (see eg There’s a climate emergency, and the planning system is not helping (Andrew Wood, CPRE, 18 October 2021) and, particularly recommended, joint guidance published on 19 October 2021 by the RTPI and TCPA on planning and climate change). You’re at a gig and the lights have gone down, the background music has been killed and there’s the occasional roadie scuttling across the stage.

Normal people can stop reading at this point and jump to the end. But for the cut and paste junkies, here are some other quotes from along the way:

Deliver four carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS) clusters, capturing 20-30 MtCO2 across the economy, including 6 MtCO of industrial emissions, per year by 2030

Following the Phase 1 of the Cluster Sequencing process, the Hynet and East Creating the skilled workforce to deliver net zero and putting UK Coast Clusters, will act as economic hubs for green jobs in line with our ambition supply chains at the forefront of global markets to capture 20-30 MtCO2 per year by 2030. This puts Teesside and the Humber, Merseyside and North Wales, along with the North East of Scotland as a reserve cluster, among the potential early SuperPlaces which will be transformed over the next decade.”

“We will also take a place-based approach to net zero, working with local government to ensure that all local areas have the capability and capacity for net zero delivery as we level up the country. And Government is leading the way – embedding climate into our policy and spending decisions, increasing the transparency of our progress on climate goals, and providing funding to drive ambitious emissions reductions in schools and hospitals.”

“These opportunities show that net zero and levelling up go hand in hand. Delivering net zero allows us to boost living standards by supporting jobs and attracting investment in the green industries of the future, which can be in areas that need this the most. Crucially, delivering net zero also involves supporting workers employed in high carbon industries that will be affected by the transition, by giving them the skills they need to make the most of new opportunities in the green economy. But the link between net zero and levelling up is wider than just the economy, net zero can deliver wider benefits for people and communities across the UK by helping spread opportunity and restore pride in place.

We are already taking action to make the most of these opportunities. We have embedded a net zero principle in our levelling up funding initiatives, such as the Levelling Up Fund and the Towns Fund, so that these schemes can contribute to meeting our net zero targets and help places to reduce their carbon impacts. Later this year, we will publish a Levelling Up White Paper. This will build on the actions the government is already taking to both deliver net zero and level up across the country, including the ones set out in this strategy, and set out new interventions to improve livelihoods and drive economic growth in all parts of the UK.”

The characteristics of the net zero challenge – requiring action by multiple parties across the public and private sectors, delivery at pace, and management of large uncertainties – underline the need for strong coordination in policy development and clear signalling to markets. Government taking a systems approach to policy will help to navigate this complexity. We must consider the environment, society, and economy as parts of an interconnected system, where changes to one area can directly or indirectly impact others. This will help to ensure we design policy to maximise benefits, account for dependencies, mitigate conflicting interests and take account of learning as we go. It reduces the risk of unintended consequences, ensuring individual decisions designed to help achieve net zero do not end up hindering it or other important objectives.

New standards and regulation.

In certain areas government will need to support and complement market-led decarbonisation with standards and regulation to ensure that, where appropriate, green options are pursued, while high carbon options are phased out. This will help to accelerate low regrets areas like energy efficiency, such as ensuring our homes are built to new standards, and high impact areas like zero emission vehicles. It will also ensure suppliers of higher-carbon technologies and fuels provide low carbon alternatives, driving deployment at scale.

Planning and infrastructure.

Low carbon solutions rely on transforming the infrastructure needed to deliver them. Increasing electricity generation needs to be accompanied by building out a flexible grid. Alongside dedicated hydrogen infrastructure, new CO2 transport and storage infrastructure is needed for the use of CCUS which will require investment of around £15 billion from now to the end of the Carbon Budget 6 period. We need to ensure that low carbon energy generation can be connected to sources of demand geographically, which means improving knowledge of local circumstances and opportunities for generation. We also recognise the importance of the planning system to common challenges like combating climate change and supporting sustainable growth.

Sustainable use of resources.

Net zero will mean maximising the value of resources within a more efficient circular economy. It will need a significant increase in the use of certain types of resources – critical minerals like lithium, graphite, and cobalt, as well an increased demand on resources like copper and steel – from manufacturing green technologies to building large-scale infrastructure. This will require new robust supply chains and provide economic opportunities, but there will be environmental trade-offs, and potential negative impacts on habitats, biodiversity, and water resources to be managed carefully. For example, ammonia emissions from anaerobic digestion, which can use waste as a feedstock, can also affect biodiversity and health.

Understanding land use trade-offs.

Like other resources, our land is finite and competition for it will need to be managed as we rely on natural resources and use land for multiple new purposes, such as perennial energy crops and short rotation forestry for energy generation, while allowing for afforestation and peatland restoration to sequester and avoid emissions. We will also need to ensure net zero is compatible with wider uses of land such as agriculture, housing, infrastructure, and environmental goals. These land use challenges are exacerbated by the impact of climate change on the availability of productive land and water in future.”

“New Buildings. We will introduce regulations from 2025 through the Future Homes Standard to ensure all new homes in England are ready for net zero by having a high standard of energy efficiency and low carbon heating installed as standard. This should mean that all new homes will be fitted with a low carbon heat source such as a heat pump or connected to a low carbon heat network. To reinforce this, we will consult on whether it is appropriate to end new gas grid connections, or whether to remove the duty to connect from the Gas Distribution Networks. As an interim measure to the Future Homes Standard, we plan to introduce an uplift in standards, effective from June 2022, for England that would result in a 31% reduction in carbon emissions from new homes compared to current standards. We will also respond to our consultation for the Future Buildings Standard for new non-domestic buildings.”

“47. We are driving decarbonisation and transport improvements at a local level by making quantifiable carbon reductions a fundamental part of local transport planning and funding. Local Transport Plans (LTPs) – statutory requirements that set out holistic place-based strategies for improving transport networks and proposed projects for investment – will need to set out how local areas will deliver ambitious carbon reductions in line with carbon budgets and net zero.

48. We will embed transport decarbonisation principles in spatial planning and across transport policy making. Last year, the government set out proposals for a new and improved planning system, central to our most important national challenges, including combating climate change and supporting sustainable growth. The National Model Design Code, published in July this year, guides local planning authorities on measures they can include within their own design codes to create environmentally responsive and sustainable places. The National Model Design Code provides tools and guidance for local planning authorities to help ensure developments respond to the impacts of climate change, are energy efficient, embed circular economy principles and reduce carbon emissions.”

The UK has a limited amount of land and delivering net zero will require changes to the way this land is used, for example, for afforestation, biomass production, and peat restoration. Opportunities for land to be used for multiple purposes, such as agroforestry will help to make sure land use for decarbonisation purposes is balanced with other demands, such as housing development and food production. These changes are likely to have varying effects on wider environmental outcomes and may completely alter the character of some landscapes and rural livelihoods (see section below). Land use change must be designed in a systemic, geographically targeted way with appropriate local governance and delivery structures which consider the complex range of interacting social, economic, and demographic factors. To support this, government is developing a Net Zero Systems Tool which aims to allow key decision makers to gain new insights and understanding, by highlighting dependencies and trade-offs within the land use system, as well as by demonstrating the knock-on effects of proposed policies. In addition, through the Environment Bill, the Government is introducing Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRS), a spatial planning tool for nature, allowing local government and communities to identify priorities and opportunities for nature recovery and nature-based solutions across England. The Bill includes a specific duty on all public authorities to “have regard” to relevant LNRSs and the spatial information they provide will support the development of local plans and other land use change incentives. Delivery of priorities and opportunities identified in LNRS will be supported by a range of delivery mechanisms including our environmental land management schemes, and in particular, the Local Nature Recovery scheme. By 2028, Defra’s current plans are for total spend to be evenly split between farm-level, locally tailored, and landscape-scale investment within ELM.”

“Local green infrastructure and the environment

34. Government will launch a new National Framework of Green Infrastructure Standards in 2022. This will support local areas and regions to deliver well-designed green infrastructure where it is most needed to deliver multiple benefits. These networks of green and blue spaces and other natural features, including trees, provide an opportunity to benefit local economies and bring about long-term improvements in people’s health and wellbeing. At the same time, it can help us to mitigate and adapt to climate change, through capturing and storing carbon, shading and cooling, and reducing flooding.

35. The Environment Bill is also creating a new system of spatial strategies called Local Nature Recovery Strategies to target action for nature and to drive the use of nature-based solutions to tackle environmental challenges like climate change. It is expected that there will be approximately 50 Local Nature Recovery Strategies covering the whole of England with no gaps and no overlaps. Preparation of each Strategy will be locally led and collaborative, with local government taking a critical role. This will provide local government with a new tool through which they can work with local partners to identify where effort to create or restore habitat would have greatest benefit for climate mitigation, whilst also having positive benefits for nature and the wider environment. Between 2021 and 2027, we will be doubling our overall investment in flooding and coastal erosion to £5.2 billion.

36. In addition, £200 million will be invested in the Innovative Flood and Coastal Resilience Innovation Programme. This will help over 25 local areas over six years to take forward wider innovative actions that improve their resilience to flooding and coastal erosion. The Environment Agency is also working with coastal authorities on a £1 million refresh of Shoreline Management Plans.”

Normal people you can start reading again…

I hope that was at least a taster and I recommend that you dip into the document itself. Whatever happens to the planning system, the initiatives set out in the document are undoubtedly going to be central to our lives and work over the years to come.

We’re going to be discussing all this for an hour or so from 6 pm on Tuesday 26 October 2021 on clubhouse. I’ve never been to a book club session but maybe it’ll be a bit like that, without the tortilla chips or wine. Join us. Link to the app here.

Simon Ricketts, 23 October 2021

Personal views, et cetera

Extract from photo by Angèle Kamp , courtesy Unsplash.

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning law firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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