By Evan Turner
The environment is in crisis. The next few decades are crucial to mitigate catastrophic risks and next year the COP26 Climate Conference will be held in Glasgow. The world is looking to the UK to set the tone, and there is growing public and private sector support for green technologies and acknowledgment of climate risks. In the past year the pandemic has taken lives and ravaged the global economy Against this backdrop Boris Johnson steps in with 10 commandments to kickstart a ‘green industrial revolution’, but are they up to scratch?
There is lots of work to do; current targets amount to just 36% of emission cuts needed to meet 2030 mid-point targets. Major infrastructure changes are needed to support electric vehicles and transitioning to a circular economy. Huge restoration projects and tree planting initiatives are required to offset emissions. To date the UK has achieved a decarbonisation rate of just over 4% per annum; a high performer on the global scale, but to meet net zero this must be accelerated to almost 10% per year.
The blockbuster pledge from the announcement is the commitment to produce enough offshore wind to power every home. This will require quadrupling the current output. Minister for Energy, Alok Sharma, called offshore wind a ‘British success story, providing cheap green electricity supporting thousands of good-quality jobs’. Offshore wind is a mature technology with existing companies and previous private sector partnership in this sector has made the UK a leading developer in offshore wind This pledge is certainly ambitious, but achievable; if met it would make significant strides towards net zero.
A major pledge is to bring forward the ban on new diesel and petrol cars from 2035 to 2030. This follows recommendations from the Green Alliance thinktank. Transport is the most polluting sector and cars and vans account for 19% of total emissions. Phasing out these polluting vehicles earlier will have major impacts on emissions, but also has the potential to create 32,000 jobs and provide a £1.9 billion profit for the economy, according to Green Alliance models. This pledge will reduce air pollution which reaches toxic levels across the country and disproportionately affects ethnic minorities and less affluent communities; a step towards climate justice.
Homes account for around 15% of the UK’s emissions. The government plans to reduce these with the ‘Green Homes Grant’ scheme, that covers two-thirds of the costs of retrofitting energy efficiency measures like heat pumps or insulation. This may be a plaster on a self-inflicted wound however as in 2016 the Government scrapped the Zero Carbon Homes standard, which aimed to make new dwellings carbon neutral, and new policy on Green construction will not be implemented until 2025. The £12bn of affordable housing pledged in the next 5 years will therefore inevitably be inefficient and wasteful. The Parliamentary select committee responsible for energy and industry expressed disappointment in this lack of policy ‘when the UK’s two largest housebuilders confirmed they do not require a long lead time to deliver higher standards’. By failing to pass policy fit for the net zero target, the Government is locking in future running and retrofitting costs for homeowners; retrofitting costs five times more than building to better standards in the first place. Some pledges are dramatic so you might expect a dramatic price tag, but the £12bn the government has pledged pales in comparison to the £400bn industry experts estimate is required to meet net zero. Upon closer inspection, this £12bn is actually only £4bn of new money, the rest is recycled from previous announcements. In comparison France has pledged £27bn and Germany £36bn. So how does the Government think this will be enough? The key to understanding the 10-point plan is private sector investment. The Chief Executive of Scottish Power told The Guardian; ‘I don’t think the Government needs to spend huge amounts of taxpayer money’ and the Head of the body responsible for advising the government on Climate Change wrote on Twitter ‘Private offshore wind investment alone could dwarf the £12bn’.
The UK has traditionally been considered the gold standard for infrastructure development, but the Government must lower the risk of investment with clear policy goals. This plan is a step in the right direction but delays in publishing new energy policy risk putting off investment. Furthermore, whilst private enterprise has shown great success in wind power, there are limitations as to what it can achieve. Reforming the transport sector for example will require interventions by local councils, cuts to which have led to over 3000 bus routes being reduced or withdrawn in England and Wales. Any strategy for ‘greening’ the UK must be inclusive and it is not clear that private enterprise accountable to shareholders can achieve this.
Private enterprise in water provides a warning. In 2017 Thames water was fined for pumping 1.4bn tonnes of raw sewage into riverways. The judge called this environmental calamity ‘borderline deliberate’. In 2018 the company admitted a quarter of all the water it pumps is lost in leaks. Despite paying more than 95% of its profits out as dividends, work to improve the pipes will be paid for by higher water bills, putting the burden on less affluent communities.
Drastic change is needed to meet the net zero target. The government admitted this is ‘only the start’ and more concrete proposals will follow. Dr Simon Evans of the Carbon Brief publication calculated a 45% shortfall between this plan and legally binding targets. The 10-point plan is a good starting point, but the path ahead is riddled with pitfalls. Future announcements will be key.
Image by robertsharp, found here and licensed under CC BY 2.0.