Background to the report

In June 2019, government passed legislation committing it to achieving ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Government set the net zero target to deliver on the commitments it had made by signing the Paris Agreement in 2016. Government also aimed to set an example for other countries to follow in the run-up to hosting the 26th United Nations’ Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). The conference is due to take place in Glasgow in November 2021, having been postponed from November 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Aiming for net zero represents an increase in the level of ambition from government’s previous emissions reduction target. In 2008, government set a target for the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 by 80% compared with 1990 levels. Between 2008 and 2018, the UK’s emissions reduced by 28%, faster than any other G20 economy. Reducing emissions further to achieve net zero will require wide-ranging changes to the UK economy, including further investment in renewable electricity generation, as well as changing the way people travel, how land is used and how buildings are heated.

Content and scope of the report

This report is intended to support Parliamentary and public scrutiny of government’s arrangements for achieving net zero, it is a companion to our recent report How government is organised to achieve its environment goals. We have applied our experience from auditing cross-government challenges to highlight the main risks government needs to manage if it is to achieve net zero efficiently and effectively. In the future, we will assess how well government is managing the risks highlighted in this report, and the value for money of individual government interventions aimed at reducing emissions.

This report covers:

  • the scale of the challenge to achieve the net zero target, and the roles and responsibilities for achieving net zero within government (Part One);
  • the coordination arrangements that bring together the different government departments involved in achieving net zero (Part Two); and
  • the government’s plans for achieving net zero and the risks it needs to manage (Part Three).

Report conclusions

Government’s reorganisation of its approach to tackling climate change reflects the high political priority attached to achieving net zero and the cross‑government nature of the challenge. While emissions have reduced steadily over recent years, particularly in the power sector, achieving net zero will require wide-ranging changes across society and the economy at a pace which leaves little room for delay. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, alongside the other departments involved, is yet to put in place all the essential components for effective cross‑government working, such as integrated planning and progress monitoring, and processes to manage interdependencies, to ensure all of government steps up to this challenge. Beyond these internal structures government also needs to spearhead a concerted national effort to achieve the ambitious outcome of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. To do so, it needs to engage actively and constructively with all those who will need to play a part – across the public sector, with industry and with citizens – to inject the necessary momentum.

“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


Publication details

Press release

View press release (4 Dec 2020)

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