David Cameron famously said the UK had other priorities and Rishi Sunak was initially reluctant to travel to COP27. Our leaders really have no choice but to take action on climate change, says Thomas Lane


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Rishi Sunak addresses world leaders at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh this week

During his opening address to world leaders at the COP27 climate change conference in Egypt this month, UN chief António Guterres warned that we are on a “highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator”.  A UN environment agency report published just before the gathering in Sharm el-Sheikh opened said that there was now “no credible pathway” towards limiting warming to the internationally agreed target of 1.5C, adding that progress towards this goal has thus far been “woefully inadequate”.

The message is clear, we need to do much, much more – but inaction is the order of the day.

Tom Lane cropped

Thomas Lane is Building’s group technical editor 

And the UK is guilty as charged. Since 2010 we have had David Cameron, who wanted to “cut the green crap”. Boris Johnson was strong on policy but weak on delivery, stymied by a chancellor whose spending priorities did not include money to reduce carbon emissions. Liz Truss’s main achievement, after nearly crashing the UK economy in September, was overturning the fracking ban. 

This was swiftly reversed by Rishi Sunak after Truss’s ignominious departure, but he did not reverse the decision to issue over 100 licences for North Sea oil and gas exploration. And Sunak initially refused even to attend COP27 because he was said to have other priorities, only changing his mind the morning after Johnson had revealed that he was going. The prime minister’s attendance was welcome, but the subtext is clear.

Creating a positive environment for change would help to raise awareness of how people could make a difference, and that understanding would act as a catalyst for action

Given the parlous state of the country’s finances, funding all the carbon reduction initiatives that multiple groups are calling for is out of the question. The country is indebted to the tune of £2.45 trillion and the reason why interest rates have jumped so much is that the markets now see the UK as a riskier bet for lenders, a situation that improved only slightly  after new chancellor Jeremy Hunt reversed most of Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget measures.

But the government should do much more to help tackle climate change without spending billions of pounds by showing genuine commitment to the issue combined with some strong leadership. Creating a positive environment for change would help to raise awareness of how people could make a difference, and that understanding would act as a catalyst for action, particularly as those actions would bring positive benefits.

>> Also read: Strong and stable? This government is anything but when it comes to energy infrastructure

As an example, Truss cancelled a £15m information campaign to help households save energy on the grounds that this would be the actions of a nanny state. A recent report published by the Social Market Foundation estimated that, if a campaign similar to that introduced in Germany went ahead, people would save up to £400 on household energy bills. 

The German campaign has reduced the country’s gas consumption by between 20% and 37%. If introduced here, this would not only cut carbon emissions but it would save the government up to £9.3bn because it is underwriting the energy price guarantee. That saving represents a 6,190% return on investment.

Rishi Sunak António Guterres

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Rishi Sunak in discussion with António Guterres at the COP27 summit in Egypt this week

There are other examples. Sunak reversed one of the few sensible interventions made by the Truss-Kwarteng double-act, namely making it easier to get planning for onshore wind farms. Nine times cheaper than gas, onshore wind could make a considerable contribution to the UK’s energy supply, make us more resilient, save consumers money on bills and the government the cost of energy subsidies. And crucially it would cut carbon emissions. Meeting the climate change committee’s recommendation to increase installed peak electrical capacity from 15GB to 35GB by 2035 could be realised much more easily by bringing onshore wind planning policy in line with other types of infrastructure.

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There is lots that the government could do to encourage households and businesses to invest in carbon reduction measures. The payback times for photovoltaic(PV) panels have been slashed from 10 years to four to five years. Making people aware of that fact could prompt them to install PV and batteries too. 

The National Grid calculates that we need 35GW of battery storage capacity to store renewable energy and power generated at night so that it is available when people need it. Home battery storage could play a part here. Loughborough University estimates that 4.4 million homes fitted with solar PV and batteries could eliminate winter peak demand on the grid on cold evenings.

Improving the energy efficiency of British homes is rapidly taking on the status of a national emergency 

Domestic batteries are expensive but there are ways of encouraging people to install them other than direct subsidies. National Grid ESO has set up a scheme where households with smart meters get paid £3kWhr to avoid using electricity at peak times in a bid to avoid winter blackouts. A similar scheme, instigated with government encouragement, would incentivise battery storage installations and help the UK towards that 2050 target.

Generating and storing low-carbon electricity is only part of the picture; improving the energy efficiency of British homes is rapidly taking on the status of a national emergency. Grants need to be given to improve the homes of those unable to afford improvements with the able to pay incentivised to act. 


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Rishi Sunak arrives in Egypt at COP27

A PAS 2035 energy assessment is a whole-house approach to retrofit and identifies areas for improvement followed by a design and specification for retrofit measures, which can be implemented over time as funds allow. Making people aware of the existence of PAS 2035 (and perhaps giving it a more consumer-friendly name) and encouraging them to have the assessment done would provide people with a better understanding of the benefits of retrofit which in turn would prompt action. This could be one of those instances where government help to bring the cost of the assessment down would be worthwhile.

There are multiple other examples of where big benefits could be realised for minimal outlay. As the messages coming out of COP27 have warned, it is no good continuing to kick this can down the road. For multiple reasons, the time to act is now.

Thomas Lane is Building’s group technical editor