Earlier this week, the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, announced the government’s new 10-point plan towards a greener future; in which £12bn of government investment will be mobilised and up to 250,000 new jobs will be created. He wrote “This 10-point plan will turn the UK into the world’s number one centre for green technology and finance, creating the foundations for decades of economic growth” in an opinion piece in the Financial Times — making bold claims about the effects of the plan. However, many are sceptical. For example, the Labour Party have said the plans are “deeply, deeply disappointing”, and won’t tackle the climate emergency nor the jobs crisis created by COVID-19.
The 10-point plan:
· A ban on combustion engine sales by 2030, with an extended deadline to 2035 for some hybrid cars and vans. This is to be complemented by grants for electric cars and funding for charge points.
· A repetition of a previously announced pledge to quadruple offshore wind power by 2030, to 40GW — enough to power every UK home.
· Moves to boost hydrogen production, promising there will be a town heated entirely by hydrogen by the end of the decade.
· An investment of £525m towards new nuclear power, centred around the “next generation of small and advanced reactors”.
· £1bn of funds next year for insulating homes and public buildings; using the existing green homes grant and public sector decarbonisation scheme.
· Investment of £200m in carbon capture initiatives.
· Support for greener energy in the aviation and maritime sectors, committing £20m to the latter.
· 30,000 hectares of trees planted every year as part of nature conservation efforts.
· Increasing moves to promote public transport, cycling, and walking, although no new schemes were announced.
· A pledge to make London “the global centre of green finance”.
Racing towards a greener country
In February, Johnson brought forward the ban of diesel and petrol cars from 2040 to 2035, before reducing it further to 2030 this week. However, the 2035 date still remains for hybrid cars and vans. This is a positive sign for the government’s commitment to fighting climate change, with the only country having a more ambitious target being Norway with their 2025 target. While electric car sales are rising strongly, they were still below 7% of all new cars bought across the UK last month — a worrying figure considering it needs to be close to 100% in a decade’s time. But one in four cars in the UK have some form of hybrid technology, so consumers are clearly more willing to switch to hybrid. These figures support the arguments the industry made when lobbying to keep the 2035 date for hybrids: that they are a way of getting consumers acquainted with the new technology. Toyota warned that outlawing hybrid models, which are made at its Burnaston plant, would jeopardise future investments in Britain — something the government wouldn’t want to risk, particularly with lots of uncertainty in the car industry surrounding Brexit. Honda, who will only sell hybrid cars in the UK by 2022, said measures relying solely on electric battery cars within 15 years were “too narrow”. This means they believe a target of 2030 for banning hybrid cars couldn’t logistically be reached due to constraints on resources and technology.
The car industry has argued that for this plan to work, a large increase in infrastructure funding is needed in order to give consumers the confidence to switch. Within its plan, the UK government has said it will invest more than £2.8bn in electric vehicles. In his opinion piece, Johnson described the results of the plan would be “lacing the land with charging points” and being able to create long-lasting batteries in the UK in “gigafactories”. The building of this infrastructure could generate tens of thousands of “shovel-ready” jobs, which should massively help those unemployed due to COVID-19, but the question is, who will pay for this? Cash-strapped local authorities currently shoulder much of the cost for the limited infrastructure available; this has created a patchwork system with varying costs for drivers across the country, further putting consumers off buying electric cars.
The winds have finally changed
The 10-point plan has reiterated the government’s pledge to quadruple the amount of offshore wind power capacity within the next decade. In recent years, the price of producing offshore wind has plunged. Consequently, this has spurred an increase in wind farm construction despite government incentives being slashed. However, the UK’s electricity grid has not been able to keep up with this increase; the government needs to provide an explanation of how the grid will be updated to combat this problem as the pace of wind energy usage ramps up further. Another issue for offshore wind is that some “green” groups are concerned about the effect of this increased production on marine and coastal habitats. This demonstrates the difficulty of rating green projects; what is more important, renewable energy or nature? Without these things having an intrinsic value of their positive effect on the planet, they are very hard to compare.
There is also a large worry that the offshore boom will fail to benefit the UK and will be led mainly by those overseas companies that import components. Many of the jobs that are created in the UK currently are likely to be low-value “muck-shifting” construction work rather than high-value manufacturing — unless there is more support for manufactures from the government. But in the current circumstances, the rise in offshore wind will not provide the high-skilled labour the PM has promised.
Finance is going to the green side
Green finance is a growing sector and investors, such as pension funds, are increasingly looking to “green” their portfolios. This could be further encouraged by the government via schemes such as tax incentives. There have also been some proposals for a publicly-funded green infrastructure bank, in order to invest in the changes needed to decarbonise the UK’s ageing buildings, and transport, communications, water, and energy networks. This would be hugely beneficial in guarding against the problems that are likely to arise for electric cars and offshore wind. To do this would require a long-term commitment; the original Green Investment Bank, set up with public money under the coalition government, was quickly abandoned a few years later after producing little tangible return.
50 shades of green
Despite the government believing this is a strong commitment to becoming more environmentally friendly, others have argued it is not “green” enough. Ed Miliband, the shadow business secretary, whose plan for a green COVID-19 recovery involves £30bn being spent over the next 18 months (a huge expenditure compared to the 10-point plan), said the proposals were low on ambition and contained several “re-heated pledges”. He said “this announcement doesn’t remotely meet the scale of the jobs emergency or the climate emergency. France and Germany are investing tens of billions of euros. This provides, at best, £4bn of new money over several years.” So there is clearly a large disparity of opinion on just how “green” this plan really is.
There is also data that suggests this plan is not enough for the UK to sufficiently cut its emissions. It is predicted the emissions savings from this plan, between 2023-2032, will only close 55% of the gap the UK needs to close in order to meet its approaching, legally binding, climate goals. Therefore, falling far short of the government’s net-zero ambitions. BBC News’ energy and environment analyst Roger Harrabin has also highlighted that “the total amount of new money announced in the package is a 25th of the projected £100bn cost of high-speed rail HS2” — so the level of monetary commitment the government is making to preventing climate change is relatively small when compared to other projects. According to PwC, the UK will need to invest an extra £400bn this decade to be on track to reach their net-zero targets.
Time is running out
All of this comes as the UK prepares to co-host the COP26 summit on December 12th to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement. There is speculation that the UK will announce a new nationally-determined contribution under the Paris Agreement around the time of the conference. But, even when out to impress, the UK’s commitment to a “greener” country is dwarfed by that of many other countries; despite its ambitious deadline for the ban of the sale of combustion engine vehicles relative to many other countries. There are many underlying infrastructure issues, mainly caused by a lack of investment, that need to be solved to allow this plan to be successfully put into place. An announcement like this is always a step in the right direction from any government, but with legally binding targets approaching, the UK needs a leap, and not a step, in the right direction.