The next industrial revolution?

Image courtesy of Friedrich Frühling from Pixabay 

In late November there was a brief fanfare to accompany the Government’s release of its ‘ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution’. News coverage of this was dominated by the announcement that the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned by 2030, some 10 years earlier than previously planned, but this attention-grabbing headline overshadowed a range of other interesting proposals. 

The timing of this plan is no coincidence. The Government is keen to demonstrate global leadership in low-carbon policy prior to the postponed COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, now due to be hosted in Glasgow in November 2021. It is also under huge pressure to rebuild the economy and create jobs post-Covid, and it would be politically tone-deaf to do this in a way that didn’t at least nod towards the environment. But more importantly, it was rapidly dawning on the Government that they simply didn’t have a viable plan to take the UK to net-zero in 2050. Clearly setting out their stall, which includes the imminent announcement of a new more stringent NDC (Nationally Determined Contribution) emissions target for 2030, is a crucial and timely step in the UK’s journey towards net zero. 

So what does the plan cover? It sets out 10 broad areas of focus for the coming years, with some short-term milestones that need to be achieved to stay on track, and a basic level of funding commitments. However, it is intentionally high-level, and requires a swathe of new policy to turn it into reality. Therefore the expectation is that it will be accompanied by a trickle of new, more detailed, policy announcements over the coming months. 

The areas covered in the plan are:

  1. Advancing offshore wind
  2. Driving the growth of low carbon hydrogen
  3. Delivering new and advanced nuclear power
  4. Accelerating the shift to zero emission vehicles
  5. Green public transport, cycling and walking
  6. Jet zero and green ships
  7. Greener buildings
  8. Investing in carbon capture, usage and storage
  9. Protecting our natural environment
  10. Green finance and innovation

The resulting plan is an odd compromise of a document. It is both the most ambitious environmental agenda that any UK government has set out to date, and yet it also leaves some gaping holes. It does a fairly effective job of distilling down the vast complexity of green policy requirements into a short, punchy document, but in doing so, fails to show the level of policy coherence that is essential to move to a carbon-neutral economy.  

As an example: one giant elephant in the room is the absence of a plan for managing the phase-out of our existing fossil-fuel industries. This policy confusion is illustrated in Cumbria, where existing planning law recently enabled the county council to approve the construction of a new underground coal mine. But, presented with the obvious conflict with proposed climate change policy, central government have been forced to intervene – the result of this intervention is as yet unknown. Clearly, eventually all central and local government policy will need to align with this plan, or its successor, but the ambition for this is currently lacking. 

Another worrying omission from the 10-point plan is anything remotely approaching sufficient financing. The announcement mentioned £12bn of funding, but eagle-eyed examination identified that only £4bn of this was ‘new’, the rest being re-hashing of previous commitments. To put this in context, Germany have already committed to investing £36bn for their equivalent ‘green recovery plan’, and consultancy firm PwC have estimated that the UK needs to spend £400bn this decade in order to achieve net zero carbon. Whilst much of the funding required to take us to net zero will come from the private sector (and there are numerous encouraging examples of investors driving the green agenda, way ahead of public policy), this proposed level of government stimulus is paltry compared to the investment in distinctly non-green initiatives, such as road-building.  

But perhaps the most worrying aspect of the 10-point plan is where it doesn’t go. Very simply, there are two ways to reduce our emissions: we can either consume less, or we can maintain our consumption, but mitigate the consequent environmental impact. Achieving net zero is almost certainly going to require large chunks of both. This means making changes that will affect everything we do – what we eat, how we live and where we go. But this isn’t vote-winning material, and is therefore notable in its absence from the plan. Instead, the government is focussing heavily on the ‘mitigation’ route, placing huge reliance on unproven technologies such as carbon capture and storage, hydrogen fuel and modular nuclear power – and the hope is that these technologies will allow us to continue living our current lifestyle, even while reducing our emissions. But this is a huge gamble – we are literally betting the future of the planet on this tech materialising in time. 

But let’s end on a more positive note, and see this 10-point plan for what it is: the most ambitious environmental proposal that the UK has taken to date, and the first step of many. We’ll watch with interest the raft of accompanying new policy announcements over the forthcoming weeks, which will fill in much of the missing detail. And, no doubt, future versions of this plan will iterate and improve over time. But we don’t have much time – fingers crossed that this plan goes far enough for now. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *