The UK government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has turned down a freedom of information request that would allow independent scrutiny of its plan for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions
1 December 2021
The UK government has refused a freedom of information request to release a spreadsheet showing how much its landmark Net Zero Strategy will cut carbon emissions for individual measures, such as backing a new nuclear power station and fitting new electric car chargers.
Withholding the document smacks of “secrecy and subterfuge” and prevents the public from being able to interrogate the estimated impacts of the measures, says Ed Matthew at climate change think tank E3G.
The publication of the government’s Net Zero Strategy on 19 October was a key moment ahead of the COP26 climate summit, laying out in detail how the UK plans to reach its 2050 commitment to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in the coming years.
Previous government blueprints for decarbonisation, such as the 2020 10-point green plan and 2017 clean growth strategy, have spelled out estimates of exactly how much individual policies will cut emissions. But the Net Zero Strategy failed to provide any such breakdown, which observers said showed a lack of transparency that hampered independent scrutiny.
Government officials conceded that there was a spreadsheet containing all the figures, but said they wouldn’t release it. Now, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has refused a freedom of information request by New Scientist to publish the document. It declined the request on the grounds that it involves the disclosure of internal communications.
Public interest doesn’t outweigh the need to keep such communications private, says the BEIS FOI team. “We have concluded that the net zero strategy itself contains appropriate detail at this stage for the public to engage with our decarbonisation proposals,” they wrote in a letter.
The UK is off track for its legally binding carbon targets for the 2020s and 2030s, a trajectory that the strategy claims it will rectify. But the strategy doesn’t provide enough detail to independently judge that, says Matthew. “If BEIS are so confident in their calculations, why are they so scared of making them public?” he says. “They can’t be in charge of marking their own homework and need to make their calculations public immediately.”
The strategy does show top-level estimates of how much emissions will change for different sectors, such as power, buildings and farming, between now and 2050. But it doesn’t break down individual measures, including backing new hydrogen production or developing new small nuclear plants, both of which will be supported by hundreds of millions of pounds in public funding.
“Ministers are behaving like a shady dealer asking customers to buy a product without seeing it first,” says John Sauven at Greenpeace UK. He is calling on BEIS to publish the spreadsheet: “The best thing would be for the government to release the numbers behind the plan and allow experts to kick the tyres on it”.
The document is likely to include estimates of how extensively various technologies will be employed and their impacts on greenhouse gas emissions in the UK. There may be a mismatch between what the government has committed to publicly, such as a Conservative party manifesto pledge to quadruple offshore wind capacity by 2030, and the estimates that are being withheld, for example.
A BEIS spokesperson said: “There is nothing secretive about the UK’s Net Zero Strategy, the first of its kind from any major economy. It outlines in detail how we will transition to a green future.”
New Scientist has appealed the decision not to publish the document.
More on these topics: