The shovels are ready but are we digging ourselves deeper into trouble?

boris in hard hatIn his memoirs, Tony Blair is scathing about environmental NGOs: “Because their entire raison d’etre is to get policy changed, they can hardly say yes, we’ve done it, putting themselves out of business…. Balance is not in their vocabulary. It’s all ‘outrage’, ‘betrayal’, ‘crisis’.” Ed Balls expressed similar concerns to the Institute for Government in 2016. Green NGOs, he said, “were very sceptical about government. They found it very hard to support and push.” Rather than opening up space for the government to move into, they killed off good plans because they were not perfect.

I have had these strictures in mind in the past few days because there is much the government says that is worth celebrating and encouraging. It has promised “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth” and insists that Covid-19 will not reverse these ambitions. The prime minister says “we owe it to future generations to build back better”. Alok Sharma has convened a roundtable on the green recovery and declared that “the world must work together… to support a green and resilient recovery, which leaves no one behind”.

We’re in danger of losing the prize
I believe ministers are sincere in their desire to reach net zero and restore the natural world, and I want to cheer these ambitions. But I also fear they are in danger of losing the prize by compartmentalising environmental policy as something that stands aside from all the other things – the really serious things – governments have to do.

The business and environment departments have been calling for ideas to fuel a green recovery and been deluged with good suggestions. The Department for Transport, for so long a total disaster, is consulting on decarbonising transport and bringing forward the deadline for phasing out the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles. In time, even the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government may begin to understand that climate action should be a priority.

But all the good plans announced or hoped for risk being fatally undermined by a bunch of policies that are positively anti-environment. For instance, while £2 billion over five years “to create a new era for cycling and walking” is obviously welcome, the government is estimated to have spent over £9 billion on high carbon transport infrastructure since 2017. It has plans to spend £27.4 billion on 4,000 miles of new roads in the next five years, and over £8 billion of high carbon transport infrastructure is planned for this year alone.

The damage can’t be offset by a few green announcements
These road schemes are the British equivalent of Scott Morrison waving a lump of coal in the Australian parliament to taunt environmentalists. They bake-in high carbon emissions for years to come and will make it harder to achieve net zero, harder to clean our air, harder to reverse the decline of the natural world. This damage cannot be offset by a few green announcements. If the government is serious about net zero, it needs a net zero test for all new infrastructure.

That includes house building. Remarkably, the state is still subsidising the building of new homes that will have to be expensively retrofitted in a few years’ time. Since 2017, it has invested an estimated £9 billion to support house building, with an addition £1.6 billion expected this year. The scrapping of the Zero Carbon Homes Standard (“green crap”) was an awful mistake, but now we read in the FT that the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, wants to renege on the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to invest £9.2 billion in home energy efficiency. He thinks energy efficiency is “boring”. Instead, he wants to invest the money in building energy inefficient new homes.

I really do not know where to start with that one, perhaps with the excellent letter from the chairs of two House of Commons select committees to the chancellor, which points out that “investing in shovel ready projects in areas such as home energy efficiency will create jobs, grow supply chains and deliver energy and cost savings in the longer term”.

There’s no pressure from the opposition
Today’s speech by the prime minister nods to the environment (“we will… build back better, build back greener…”) and I do not dismiss the importance of this sort of framing. In the wake of the last economic crash, the environment was hardly a consideration. At least the PM sometimes says the right things, and does so, I am afraid, without being put under any sort of pressure by the Leader of the opposition, who is silent on the environment.

But, for all that, the PM is not rising to the huge challenge of climate and ecological breakdown, which should animate all aspects of government policy. When it comes to the natural environment, where on earth is the Environment Bill, once heralded by the PM as “the huge star of our legislative programme… a lodestar by which will we guide our country to a cleaner and greener future”? The bill needs to be reintroduced to parliament without delay.

When it comes to climate, building new roads; shunning the retrofitting of the nation’s draughty or stuffy homes; a nature and climate blind trade policy; loan guarantees for fossil fuel projects; weakening planning protections; bailing out carbon intensive industries without condition – all these things give an impression of a government that is not serious about achieving the huge green ambitions it has set itself.

The fossil fuel economy is dying. Investing in a net zero economy will pay dividends in terms of jobs, competitiveness and people’s quality of life. Helpfully, Green Alliance has set out a Blueprint for a resilient economy, a five point plan backed by serious analysis. The chancellor is due to set out a more detailed plan for the recovery shortly. I hope he takes note.

[Image courtesy of Andrew Parsons, via Flickr]

One comment

  • This article is spot on.

    Announce a project to get more people walking and cycling (positive – £2bn over 5 years), after announcing £106bn+++ for HS2 that will deliver a 19th century technology (trains), for a 20th century problem (increased passengers) when at the time of delivery of even the first phase to Birmingham (2032+), let alone any second phase (2040++) the world will have moved to more sustainable connectivity solutions (remote working, virtual 3d meetings, UL vehicles), etc. The current technological solution will be delivered 25 years too late, too expensive, to meet a need no longer relevant. HS2 will have had a massive negative impact on the environment with all the digging up of countryside to lay down a few 100 miles of railway track and tunnels, destroying homes and buildings, relocating families and business, etc. If mass passenger transport is required, we should leverage current transport infrastructure already linking cities in an innovative and adaptable way, and with 21st century solutions to meet 21st century sustainable mobility and logistics needs.

    Any new roads investment is not necessarily a negative issue if the roads are designed ‘ready for but not with’ the necessary upgrades to help with an ultra low emissions transport transition. Any new buildings, and any new retrofits or upgrades, need to be to ultra high energy efficiency standards that not only address getting to net zero carbon, but address fuel poverty for those in our society most impacted by the socio-economic consequences of Covid-19.

    We should be using the emergence from Covid-19 as an opportunity to rethink and reset our transition roadmap to net zero carbon by 2050. Leveraging UK’s clean sector innovation, net zero could be done by 2045 or even 2040 with a proper joined up system-of-system national clean growth/net zero strategy, properly managed transition implementation plan, and all party sign-up. This could be further exploited as an expertise to be exported and for UK to show true sustainable society leadership.

    However, this needs true political vision and leadership, pan government and pan sector systems thinking, and untethering ourselves from BAU and remove short-term thinking that is stifling innovation and progress needed to deliver the long-term aims and UK environmental, social and economic benefit.

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