Net Zero


Time to retake global leadership

John Gummer

The Rt Hon John Gummer, Lord Deben, is the founder and Chairman of Sancroft International, a consultancy that advises both businesses and investors on all areas of Sustainability and ESG (environmental, social and governance performance). Between 2012 and 2023 he was Chairman of the UK’s Independent Climate Change Committee. Lord Deben was also the UK’s longest serving Secretary of State for the Environment (1993-97) having previously been Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food.


  • The UK is failing to meet its statutory targets
  • Creating fictional disadvantaged groups will not work
  • Business wants stability and ambition not constant change
  • The UK has led the world on climate change but that leadership is under threat
  • Other countries see the opportunity even if we choose not to.

The latest report of the Climate Change Committee contained the sharpest language of any of them, because we felt it necessary to state plainly that the current Government is not on course to reach net zero by 2050. Nor is it on course to meet the targets it fixed for 2030. Any mathematician can see this.

Now the courts, under the Climate Change Act, had required the Government to explain how it was going to satisfy the statutory requirements. The Government provided a large amount of material in explanation which, unusually, they did not supply to us in advance. We received it on the day it was published. It took some time to read through the material, but by the end the conclusion was clear.

On a number of aspects we had previously given them the benefit of the doubt, but the documents showed very clearly there was no doubt. The fact is, the UK is not on course to deliver its commitments.

I have been in politics a long time. I recognise that we are probably within a year of a general election and people sometimes do silly things to try to create a divide between themselves and their opposition. In one election, Tony Blair was portrayed in a way that made him look like the devil: he manifestly was not an extremist, and it was not a successful campaign.

Now though we are faced with a Prime Minister who says that he will refuse to do a number of things. He says he is not going to have seven bins in every home – I know of nobody who has ever suggested that. He will not have a tax on meat – nobody has ever suggested that. So those things should not worry us.

What is worrying is the belief that somehow or other we can reach net zero without anybody being upset in any circumstances. There are groups of people who are invented specifically to be these disadvantaged individuals. One which is a favourite of some newspapers is ‘the motorist’. I know of nobody who defines themselves as a motorist. It is an invented concept.

Put the date for EVs back to 2035 then – goes the claim – nobody need worry, because motorists can still buy secondhand cars which are not EVs and they can still sell cars that are not EVs. In fact, this is precisely what is already in place with the date at 2030. There is no change and, indeed, the demands on the industry remain the same.

COP26 in Glasgow: the UK urged global help for developing countries to achieve Net Zero cleanly 

Further, companies that had adapted to meet existing Government targets were furious. The chairman of Ford said: “We want governments which have ambition and commitment, who stick to the things they believe and have said they will stick to.” In other words, they need to have consistency, commitment and ambition. I am afraid we do not have a government which has any of those three in sufficient depth.

Yet, we should not think that a change of government would necessarily be different. When the Labour Party very rightly said it would not support long term further exploitation of the North Sea, the first organisations to attack the commitment were their two biggest donors, the GMB and Unite unions. It is a tough world, politically, to deliver net zero.

Politicians are much better at policy than delivery. Yet it is delivery that the Climate Change Committee has been pursuing. It is delivery that the courts are now considering, because this is a statutory requirement under the Climate Change Act.

Climate leadership

We ought to recognise the contribution this country has made towards global progress up to now, which is why the Climate Change Committee had to say that Britain has now ceased to be the leader. We set the targets the world has now begun to accept. We first committed ourselves to net zero in 2050. Meeting in Glasgow, it is the UK which said to the rest of the world, “We have to raise the money to help the developing countries to move from where they are to where they ought to be, without the intervening and damaging dirty stage.”

We have every reason to be proud of our history, not least, the all-party agreement on climate change, invented by the Conservatives in opposition, which won over every other party and then the Labour Government. There are now 16 nations that are following us because they see it as the best available structure.

So my message is, first, that we have done more than anyone else. Secondly, we are resiling and that is both unconscionable and unacceptable. The third message is that we have to win back the momentum and that means winning the hearts and minds of people in Britain. The Daily Mail's motorist cannot determine how we proceed.

We have to bring climate change back into public debate and everyone has a part to play. Language is important: kilowatt-hours do not have the same impact as talk about bills. The whole of the nation must understand that this has to be fought now, immediately, with urgency. It has to be fought in a way where the UK leads the world instead of becoming tail-end-Charlie.

The world is changing. The Americans have moved to a new place, the European Union has moved to a new place. China has announced the biggest move towards offshore wind, onshore wind and photovoltaics of any time in history. It will meet its targets and, crucially, it has turned that drive into a business. They know where the future lies. It is in the fight against climate change, and the battle to win the economic argument at the same time.