Why the government’s bold green promises lack substance

Reducing UK carbon emissions to net zero will be costly. Postponing the Environment Bill for a third time risks making the green transition less feasible

February 03, 2021
Photo: Ashley Cooper pics / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: Ashley Cooper pics / Alamy Stock Photo

By postponing the Environment Bill at the end of January, the government has damaged the momentum the green agenda has built up over the last year. Rather than blaming the delay on Covid, we should apply the lessons of the past year to understand how major problems can really be solved.

Other than Covid, one issue has dominated recent public policy debate: the environment, and in particular the policies necessary to mitigate the risks climate change brings. Global warming has not suddenly been discovered, of course, but in the past 12 months it has moved to the centre of politics in Europe, the major economies of Asia and since the election of President Biden, the United States.

The UK is attempting to take a lead on the issue in advance of the major UN conference to be held in Glasgow at the end of this year. The legally binding commitment to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050 made by Theresa May’s administration in 2019 was the first such pledge in the world. Boris Johnson has now promised a 68 per cent reduction in emissions from a 1990 baseline by 2030.

The problem is the lack of substance behind these grand ambitions. Without details, individuals and businesses have no clear basis on which to make their decisions. Bluster changes nothing. As of now, emissions will continue to rise once the Covid-led recession comes to an end. Air quality will continue to deteriorate further, posing dangerous health risks. The momentum for progress across the environmental agenda will have been lost.

Some of the solutions are readily available. It would, for instance, be entirely possible to do more to encourage drivers to buy electric vehicles, or to electrify most of the rail network, or to set new and rigorous standards for pollution from freight lorries.

But none of that will happen unless decisions are taken to fund the infrastructure required—such as a full network of charging points—and to identify how each of the many shifts envisaged in Johnson’s “Ten Point Plan” and the subsequent Energy White Paper will be paid for.

The question of who pays is why the rhetoric of big promises is not matched by the details of delivery. The Ten Point Plan was not costed, and the government is frightened to spell out the extent of each cost to a nation in recession. Will rail electrification be paid for by rail users, or by taxpayers? The installation of heat pumps (which absorb heat from outside sources and transfer it to provide heat for homes or offices) in 600,000 homes by 2028 was put forward as one means of reaching the 2030 emissions reduction target, but who will pay the cost of each unit? The poorest will be offered a grant, but what about the millions on modest incomes?

The economics of the transition are treacherous and, if mishandled, could yet derail the transition to a low-carbon economy. The public wants to see global warming tackled but the costs of each step need to be allocated fairly and explained with total transparency to sustain support for action. Private sector investment, which is essential, will not be forthcoming if no one knows who will be paying for the rest of the green effort.

So the economics of the transition is the first challenge. The second is the absence of a commitment to deliver across all the different elements of government. The fact that new coal mines have been given permission to open illustrates the extent to which the message of change has not been heard in some government departments, or indeed at the local level. The decisions to proceed with the environmentally destructive construction of HS2 and the expansion of Heathrow show that the government still does not speak with a single voice.

The Environment Bill would have been a significant step in the direction of a unified and coherent approach. Postponement signals the lack of preparation behind the rhetoric, and reminds us that change creates losers who will fight hard to defend their established positions.

The third challenge is that electricity is not the answer to everything. More of the economy can be electrified and powered by low-carbon sources, but the feasible limit is that electricity can only supply 40 per cent of total demand. Getting to that would be a great step up from the present 20 per cent but would still leave major parts of the economy—from freight transportation to heavy industry—reliant on hydrocarbons.

There are possible answers—not least the use of green hydrogen—but they all need extensive research and development to make them viable. The government acknowledges this, but assumes by promising net zero by 2050 that all the challenges will be overcome. Optimism is a great thing, but massive investment is needed for us to have a chance of success. Energy storage, for instance, can make a huge difference, potentially increasing the productivity of wind and solar power production. But current funding is pathetically inadequate and fragmented. As things stand, the UK’s battery development and production for vehicles or for use at grid level has no chance of matching China’s, whose share accounts for over 70 per cent of current battery production capacity.

The story, however, does not need to end in disappointment, failure and rising levels of emissions. We have seen over the last year one great success of public policy delivery in response to Covid: the Vaccine Task Force. By coordinating decision-making authority behind a clear and ambitious goal, the UK has shown just what can be achieved. The art of the possible has become the science of the possible. The lesson is clear. If the government is serious in its rhetoric and promises, it must set up a low-carbon task force, bringing together the power of public policy and private investment and the necessary scientific, technical, logistical and financial skills. If this approach can deliver effective vaccines, there is no reason why it cannot deliver the energy transition.