Achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions1 in the UK is a colossal challenge and government will need to spearhead a concerted national effort if it is to reach its goal by 2050, according to today’s report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

In June 2019, government passed legislation committing it to achieving ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This is significantly more challenging than government’s previous target to reduce emissions by 80% compared to 1990 levels by 2050. Between 2008 and 2018, the UK’s emissions reduced by 28%, faster than any other G20 economy. But without further action, the UK’s emissions are projected to exceed government’s targets for the years 2023 to 2027 and 2028 to 2032, though government plans to announce policies aimed at closing these gaps. Even faster progress is going to be needed to get to net zero by 2050, including changes to the way electricity is generated, how people travel, how land is used and how buildings are heated.

The all-encompassing nature of achieving net zero means that all government bodies, including departments, arm’s-length bodies and executive agencies have a role to play. Drawing on past experience, the NAO shows there are risks to cross-government arrangements that need to be considered carefully, such as ensuring individual departments give net zero sufficient priority and that there are the necessary skills across government. Government has not clearly set out the roles of public bodies outside central departments, despite many, including local authorities, playing critical roles in the achievement of net zero.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) plans to launch a net zero strategy prior to the 26th United Nations’ Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in November 2021,2 a critical step if the UK is to achieve net zero by 2050. Based on its expertise in major projects and programmes, the NAO recommends that BEIS identifies and evaluates which parts of the net zero strategy are uncertain, develops a plan that reduces this uncertainty, and sets out a timetable for key decisions to be made.

There is more work to be done to ensure that all public sector organisations take the actions necessary to reduce their own emissions. In 2018, public sector buildings emitted 8 million tonnes of greenhouse gases, representing 9% of all emissions in the buildings sector. To date, central government departments have reduced emissions from their buildings and operations by an estimated 46% since 2009-10. But targets have not covered significant areas of impact outside of central government, like schools and the NHS. 

BEIS recognises it needs to do more to establish monitoring arrangements to track progress towards net zero. Though it reports actual and forecast greenhouse gas emissions annually, there is currently no process for monitoring the progress of policies on a more regular basis, or for escalating problems identified by monitoring information. Additionally, neither BEIS nor HM Treasury collates information on the overall costs and benefits of government policies in this area. The NAO recommends that government develop and monitor clear, relevant and consistent data on progress on net zero policies across government and gathers information on how much it has committed and spent.

BEIS has recently begun considering how to engage the public in achieving net zero in a coordinated way. It estimates that costs will be reduced if the public understands and accepts the changes that are required. BEIS established a central behaviour change and public engagement team in April 2020 to design a public engagement strategy and share good practice across government. BEIS’s plans for engaging the private sector are more advanced but risks remain to securing the investment required.

The costs of achieving net zero are highly uncertain. The Climate Change Committee estimated in 2019 that the annual costs of achieving net zero could increase over time, to around 1-2% of GDP in 2050. BEIS is developing its own estimates of what net zero will cost between now and 2050, with this likely to be hundreds of billions of pounds.  HM Treasury will investigate how these costs could fall between government, businesses and individuals, as part of a review which will conclude in 2021.

However, the costs of inaction would be far greater because of the need to adapt to substantial climate change, such as building flood defences and dealing with the health impacts of higher temperatures. The Climate Change Committee has suggested there are also wider benefits of achieving net zero, such as improvements to human health and enhanced biodiversity.

“Government wants the UK to be a global leader in tackling climate change and achieving net zero is key to its ambitions. While emissions have reduced steadily in recent years, achieving net zero is an enormously challenging long-term project, which will require well thought-out cross-government coordination to drive unprecedented changes across society and the economy.

“Government needs to step up to the challenge, ensuring it has a clear strategy to achieve its goal and accurately monitoring progress. It will have to reach outside of Whitehall and bring together the public sector, industry and all of us as citizens in a coordinated national effort spanning decades.”

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO

Read the full report

Achieving net zero

Notes for editors

  1. Achieving net zero means reducing emissions substantially from current levels, with the greenhouse gases the UK still emits being equal to or less than what it removes from the atmosphere either by the natural environment or carbon capture technologies
  2. COP26 is due to take place in Glasgow in November 2021, having been postponed from November 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. It will bring together heads of state, climate experts and campaigners to agree coordinated action to tackle climate change. It will be the biggest international summit the UK has ever hosted.
  3. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.

About the NAO

The National Audit Office (NAO) scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service. It helps Parliament hold government to account and it uses its insights to help people who manage and govern public bodies improve public services. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Gareth Davies, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO. The NAO audits the financial accounts of departments and other public bodies. It also examines and report on the value for money of how public money has been spent. In 2019, the NAO’s work led to a positive financial impact through reduced costs, improved service delivery, or other benefits to citizens, of £1.1 billion.

Latest press releases