Achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions will be a colossal challenge for the UK and one that will require all parts of government to work together. The NAO has audited numerous cross-government projects and programmes in the past, ranging from the 2012 Olympics to preparations for EU Exit. This experience has given us a deep insight into the factors that are likely to be critical to the government achieving its climate change ambitions, which are outlined in our recent report Achieving net zero

We found that although the government has reorganised its approach to tackling climate change since setting the net zero target, it still needs to put in place effective cross-government working to ensure it can step up to the challenge. These findings are even more relevant now that the government has announced the UK’s Nationally Determined Contribution, which commits us to reducing our emissions by 68 per cent on 1990 levels by 2030.

Of course, we recognise the scale of the task ahead for government. Achieving net zero means finding ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors of the economy, including those where progress to date has been limited, such as transport and buildings. It’s also not yet known what role new technologies will play in reducing emissions, or how much individuals will change habits and lifestyles. Adding to the complexity, many of the activities required to reach the goal are interdependent; for example, increasing the number of electric vehicles creates demands on the power system. Achieving net zero will require careful sequencing and planning.

Net zero is a truly cross-government endeavour. The Climate Change Committee, which advises government on how to achieve net zero, made recommendations to 15 different government departments in its most recent progress report. This means departments need to have finely-tuned ways of working together that mean everyone is pulling in the same direction. Government’s coordination arrangements for net zero are still evolving and some have been delayed because of COVID-19. It is still too early to say how well the arrangements are working.

Government wants to create a sense of collective ownership for achieving net zero, rather than responsibility resting with one central ‘owner’. But there are certain risks to consider for this to happen, such as ensuring net zero takes sufficient priority in relation to government’s other aims. There also needs to be enough capability across government, and sharing of information across departments, including relevant insights that could be applied across different sectors.

The challenge of achieving net zero stretches beyond central government and into a wide range of other public bodies, including regulators, arm’s-length bodies and local authorities. However, the responsibility of these public bodies in meeting the net zero target is not clear. For example, local authorities do not have a clearly defined role in the achievement of net zero, despite the important part they could play in decarbonising transport and housing, and encouraging businesses and individuals to take action. More can be done to ensure public bodies reduce their own emissions. Decarbonising the public sector is an important signal that government is taking the net zero target seriously, as well as setting an example for businesses to follow.

We looked at government’s plans over the next 12 months to establish a net zero strategy and the challenges it will face beyond. Establishing the strategy – which government plans to do before it hosts the global climate conference “COP26” in November 2021 – is a critical step for clarifying its plans around how net zero will be achieved. A clearer pathway towards achieving target is more likely to build private sector investors’ confidence to back the technologies and infrastructure that will be needed. Government needs to find a way to provide this greater clarity, whilst at the same time, giving itself the flexibility to react to unexpected events or new solutions emerging over the next three decades.

Once the government’s plan is in place, it needs to ensure it has a way to track progress on the policies aimed at achieving net zero. While there is good annual reporting on greenhouse emissions, which give a broad sense of where the UK is on the road to net zero, currently government doesn’t have a way of assessing the overall performance of its key emissions policies. This means senior decision makers could lack an understanding of where key problems might be emerging, or where resources need to be reprioritised. There is also a lack of collated information on the costs and benefits of policies aimed at achieving net zero, which could hamper resourcing decisions and preclude full public accountability.

There is a need to reach out of Whitehall and engage businesses and individuals, who will be critical to achieving net zero. Almost every individual will also have some role to play, whether that is changing the type of car they drive, updating their household heating system or even reducing the amount of meat and dairy products they consume. Currently, there is a mismatch between the public’s support for action to tackle climate change and an understanding of the changes that everyone will be required to make.

You can read our report in full here: Achieving net zero. The next year is set to be a critical period in the net zero journey, and we plan to continue working with government departments over that time as it considers and implements our recommendations. We are undertaking a programme of work to assess the government’s activities in particular aspects of achieving net zero: one on environmental tax measures and another on reducing carbon emissions from cars.

Simon Bittlestone

Simon is the manager of net zero studies at the National Audit Office.