Investing in low-carbon jobs is not just about the future

The time to act is now

January 23, 2021
Blyth in Northumberland, which is set to be home to one of the UK’s first “gigafactories.” © David Levenson/Alamy Stock Photo
Blyth in Northumberland, which is set to be home to one of the UK’s first “gigafactories.” © David Levenson/Alamy Stock Photo

In January, as the UK plunged into a further period of severe national restrictions, important sectors of the economy began grinding to a halt. The Chancellor quickly confirmed renewed economic stimulus packages: a recent commitment of £4.6bn, for example, was aimed at ensuring businesses do not fold and securing millions of jobs. But even this challenging period brings an opportunity to ensure a “green” economic recovery. We must seize it. The Environmental Audit Committee in the House of Commons, which I chair, is examining how to align future such economic measures with the UK’s ambitious climate and environment goals.

To champion a net zero economy, the UK must develop the workforce skills to deliver it. Economists predict 2.6m people could be unemployed by mid-2021, marking the highest level of unemployment since the financial crisis in 2009. The creation of green jobs will be instrumental in addressing this crisis. The UK is a science and technology powerhouse, with thriving clusters around the country. It needs a skilled workforce not only to develop crucial green technologies like hydrogen, offshore wind and heat pumps, but also to undertake the installations required at pace. The committee has heard that a national retrofit strategy, with education providers at its heart, is required to provide the training and re-training needed for a low-carbon future.

As the government has brought forward to 2030 the date from which the sale of new petrol and diesel cars is banned, the electric vehicles market must expand rapidly. Government support will be necessary to scale manufacturing of batteries and the wider electric vehicle supply chain to make a rapid switch from manufacturing combustion engines to ultra low and zero emission vehicles. Up to eight so-called “gigafactories” will be required in the UK to manufacture electric vehicles and their batteries. The government recently announced that Blyth Valley will be the home to the first of these, creating thousands of low-carbon jobs. 

[su_pullquote]“This challenging period brings an opportunity. We must seize it”[/su_pullquote]

Manufacturers and retailers, especially online laggards, need to develop a circular economy, which will support many new roles in electronics and related industries. We must all of us make better use of what we have, giving a new lease of life to items rather than discarding them. In my committee’s recent report on electronic waste, we were shocked to find that many devices are not built to last, are almost impossible to repair, and are too often sent to landfill. National recycling efforts are stalling, and electronic waste has a huge and detrimental impact on
our environment.

These transformations to the economy will not happen overnight, but the government must set the direction of travel, detailing realistic paths to net zero. The UK’s “Nationally Determined Contribution” under the Paris Agreement, aimed at reducing emissions from 1990 levels by at least 68 per cent by 2030, is rightly ambitious. Now we must see the detailed strategies and government actions to back it up. The UK plays host to COP26 in November, and all eyes will be on us as an environmental world leader. The Chancellor’s next budget on 3rd March must back this ambition, and ensure that the UK’s spending plans align with its net zero and biodiversity commitments.

Incentivising business to adopt more sustainable behaviour will be key, and taxation could play a part in this. Submissions to our inquiry into the post-Covid recovery support tax changes to stimulate a low-carbon future. The Treasury should consider how taxes can better penalise pollution and waste. After Brexit, the greater freedom to change national VAT rates could be used to encourage consumer behaviour towards these goals. Further tax incentives may also be required to meet the PM’s pledge that the only new cars and vans on sale by 2030 will be electric ones. 

Over the course of the pandemic, many people have developed a greater admiration for science—driven in part by the development of treatments and vaccines in record time. Similarly, we must trust and be guided by the science in reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This target appears remote, but the window of opportunity to make meaningful change is narrow. We cannot afford not to act.

This article features in Prospect’s new “Green Recovery” report, published in partnership with SNC Lavalin, Atkins, Ricardo and the Aerospace Technology Institute. Read the full report PDF here.