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  • Marianne Kell

The UK’s journey to net zero: what do we mean by a just transition to a greener energy system?

Climate change poses a number of serious threats to our planet, and risks destabilising how societies and economies are organised. From catastrophic threats to global food systems, human health, biodiversity, and infrastructure, if the causes of climate change are not tackled at their root, this will fundamentally affect communities and businesses worldwide. And with climate change comes the threat of severe economic disruption locally, nationally, and globally. This in turn requires a unified response at each level of government.

Global policy drivers for net zero

At global level, the need to reduce carbon emissions is recognised by the Paris Agreement, of which the UK is one of 195 signatories who adopted the Agreement in 2015. This was a significant first step towards a global effort to tackle climate change. Other global initiatives and directives have followed. Most notably the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are 17 global goals adopted by the UN which recognise that development must balance economic, social, and environmental priorities to safeguard our planet and the future of the next generations. In 2015, the UK joined every other country in the world in signing up to a commitment to achieve the 17 SDGs by 2030. Supporting new jobs in the renewable energy sector, improving community resilience, and supporting green growth while reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions at a national scale are priorities identified by the SDGs.

The UK’s road to net zero

The UK’s road to net zero is not an easy one and it requires major structural changes to the way we interact with the world around us. Actions at a community or individual level will only be effective if they are guided by policies and strategies at national and global levels, which help structure the “new normal.”

In 2022, the Measuring Up 2.0 report assessed how the UK is performing against the SDG goals. This reflects the findings from the UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD) who conducted a study in 2018, working closely with the UN Global Compact Network UK. The findings of the report show that while progress has been made in some areas, particularly the successful vaccine rollout following the Covid-19 pandemic and good progress on tackling food waste, there is still a long way to go.

Since 2018 the UK has made good progress in increasing the scale and the scope of its response to climate change, particularly in the development of a comprehensive net zero strategy and setting a legally binding net zero target. The UK Government’s target to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 is enshrined in law by the Climate Change Act (2008), updated in 2019 following the Paris Agreement. Wales has the Net Zero Plan which shares the UK ambition of net zero emissions by 2050 (Climate Change (Wales) Regulations 2021). The Scottish Government are aiming to achieve net zero emissions by 2045 (Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2019).

Each sector has sectoral-specific plans and strategies for laying out roadmaps to achieve decarbonisation and net zero specific to sector. Some examples include the Maritime 2050: Navigating the Future Plan for the shipping and ports industry, Heat and Buildings Strategy for the housing and construction sectors, Delivering a Net Zero National Health Service (England) and NHS Wales Decarbonisation Strategy for public health, and Powering Up Britain: Net Zero Growth Plan which sets out a national energy security strategy.

Just Transition - the interplay between net zero plans and supporting fair and sustainable economic growth

The goal for a just transition should be to develop processes to transition to a net zero economy, while ensuring that any social and economic impacts are fair, particularly for vulnerable communities who may be affected by these changes. This is known as the “just transition” and it is essential for achieving sustainable development and safeguarding the future for generations to come. To support this, the UK’s net zero plans must support fair and sustainable economic growth.

Careful strategic planning is therefore necessary to ensure that no individuals or communities are left behind in the transition to net zero. Without policies in place to support a just transition, may have disastrous impacts on our society and hinder progress to achieving sustainable growth.

Around the UK, activities have been ongoing to develop just transition as a policy imperative. For example, in late 2022 – March 2023, the Welsh Government conducted a consultation to gather evidence to potentially develop a Just Transition Framework for Wales, to inform Wales’s decarbonisation pathway to net zero. In England, policy activities at a regional level are likely to place just transition as part of the Levelling Up agenda. The Social Value Act 2014 in England is also a useful legal framework for driving fair and sustainable local economic growth, which also supports sustainable procurement to reduce carbon emissions.

But how can we ensure that the projects and initiatives supporting these policy drivers achieve the social, economic, and environmental impacts they set out?

The critical importance of evaluating what works in supporting a just transition.

The role of evaluation of policy and practices can help identify the most effective policies and processes for decarbonisation of activities across a broad range of sectors. Wavehill has played an active role in evaluating policies, initiatives and programmes at local, regional, and national level which aim to shift the needle in the path to net zero across a number of different sectors, including housing, low carbon technology, agricultural, health, cultural and heritage.

Evaluation of policies can help support structural change and identify how effectively net zero policies have been implemented as well as identifying areas where they can be improved. This helps to support the development of the most effective models for delivering these policies.

Evaluation of interventions and practices also plays a critical role in understanding barriers to change and identifying the types of incentives needed to overcome these barriers. Identifying which interventions are successful, and which ones are not, contributes towards shaping definitions of best practice at a local level, and understanding which (and how) successful delivery models can be scaled up or replicated elsewhere. Finally, evaluation can help establish a benchmark and examine the extent to which programmes have been effective in realising social and economic benefits of the shift to net zero.


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