Action not words is needed to address the climate crisis

Ramboll's UK managing director, Mathew Riley.

The UK government is way behind other nations in meeting its zero carbon goals and there is an urgent need for more clarity on how it plans to move at the scale and speed required to address the climate crisis, argues Ramboll’s Mathew Riley.

It is excellent to see that climate action remains on Boris Johnson’s agenda and that his government appreciates the need for green principles to form a central pillar in the UK’s economic recovery. However, if we are to become a global leader in achieving net zero and taking effective action on the climate crisis then rapid implementation of this plan must be a priority - time is absolutely of the essence. 

The UK originally set one of the most ambitious targets for net zero but to remain global leaders in climate action we need to move further and faster. While a welcome move, the government’s ten-point plan comes worryingly close to the wire. 

It is understandable that both the pandemic and Brexit have dominated this year, but now is the time to put climate action back at the top of the agenda, with detailed planning and implementation timelines that reflect its critical status for society. We need clear targets and bold statements for every sector. Crucial to rapid implementation will be a clear and detailed policy framework that enables both public and private sector to plan their own strategies. We must move past declarations of intent and really get down to the detail if we hope to address climate challenge at the scale and speed needed. 

Rapid social and behavioural change is crucial in preventing a climate crisis. It is ultimately policy that changes behaviour and so the government must deliver definitive policy commitments to drive the cultural changes needed to meet zero carbon goals and develop a more sustainable society. Boris and his government need to put on a united front and show real leadership in uniting the public and private sector and providing the correct environment for change to be delivered.

For example, road user charges may not be popular but in the long term could have a highly significant impact in reducing UK vehicle emissions. The government must look beyond the next election cycle in their decision making and make decisions based on what is best for people and the planet in the long term. 

Missing from the government’s proposals is how they plan to mitigate the impact of our built environment - currently it contributes up to 40% of the UK's carbon footprint and so reducing this should be crucial. The £1bn pledged for the green homes initiative is a start but to make any meaningful impact we need action right across the built environment - this narrow focus simply isn’t enough. Industry collaboration here is key; the construction sector is poised to contribute but the government must lead this interaction and utilise existing knowledge and networks to help the sector innovate, change practices and deliver the change needed.

Effective and sufficient investment is equally as critical as policy and promises - otherwise such announcements are purely paying lip service to the environment crisis. At present, all ten points are purely decarbonisation policies, when the UK also needs to build in climate resilience planning to mitigate the impact of the climate crisis.

We must also make the route to green financing much clearer in both the private and public sector – these pledges will be hard to implement if we can’t actually follow the money. Offshore wind investment also looms large and illustrates the policy point – we need a marine strategy in place, which ensures we avoid the unintended negative impacts on biodiversity by rushing ahead on offshore wind.

Mathew Riley is the UK managing director of international environmental consultancy Ramboll.