Three tests the government’s green recovery plans should be measured against

This post is by Belinda Gordon, strategy director and Roz Bulleid, interim deputy policy director at Green Alliance

While the risk of a second coronavirus wave was always there, the rapidity with which we’ve been driven back into lockdown has taken the country by surprise. We now feel a long way off ‘recovering’ from the pandemic, both in health and economic terms. While the chance of a vaccine in the next few months looks promising, there is broad agreement that it won’t be the silver bullet that allows life to ‘go back to normal’ anytime soon. So, the reality is that we need to learn to live with the virus, at least in the short term. This includes working out how we continue to make progress to address the other, longer term crisis we face: that of climate change and the destruction of nature.

That the government is maintaining momentum on this, despite the immediate pressures, deserves recognition. The prime minister is due to outline his ten point plan for a green industrial revolution next week and several other significant environment-related announcements are expected before the end of the year.  Within government there seems to be an appreciation that, if action isn’t taken now, the environmental crisis is likely to lead to further catastrophies on a par with the current one. Boris Johnson is also embracing the opportunity that hosting the UN climate talks in Glasgow next November gives the UK, to show the world how an economy with environmental priorities at its heart, can deliver societal well-being and economic growth in its broadest sense.

Our new ‘Green Renewal’ project aims to support the government in developing the workable, evidence-based policies needed to pursue this and provide a positive vision for coming out of the pandemic. To do this, we are collaborating with a wide range of organisations, drawing on their expertise, working directly with Wildlife and Countryside Link, and in partnership with WWF, RSPB, National Trust, Client Earth, The Woodland Trust and The Wildlife Trusts. We will also be building on analysis and evidence from other groups like The Aldersgate Group and The Climate Coalition.

As a starting point, three factors are imperative in the plans being announced over the next couple of months.

1. Ambition
The scale and urgency of the environmental crisis means that we have to move beyond token, isolated green gestures. This priority must be threaded through all mainstream policies. For example, all public spending and policy decisions must pass a ‘net zero test’ to make sure they are putting us on the path to net zero greenhouse gas emissions and not hindering progress needed. We need ambitious new nature restoration and pollution goals set in the Environment Bill (and the equivalent in the devolved regions of the UK). We need delivery mechanisms, not least land management schemes in all four countries of the UK, to replace the Common Agricultural Policy payments. These have to live up to the initial promises made in 2018 to transform the environmental impact of farming and reverse nature’s decline. Finally, we need both a bold new emissions reduction commitment for 2030 under the Paris Agreement and the policies in place to reach it.

Funding already announced this year for a housing energy efficiency programme and for cycling and walking infrastructure is a good start. Reports suggest the prime minister’s ten point plan will include commitments on a range of emerging low carbon technologies.

But, remember the early days of lockdown, when parallels were being drawn with the post-war Marshall Plan, Bretton Woods project and creation of the United Nations? To deliver on expectations anywhere near that magnitude, the government’s plans will need to be very bold indeed. It won’t be enough to focus only on emerging – and largely unproven – technological solutions, we also need unprecedented commitment to the mass roll-out of proven measures, like energy efficiency and resource efficiency that can deliver hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process.

2. Address the whole crisis
The world is in the grip of a mass extinction as well as climate change, and we can’t solve one without the other. We would love to believe that there is a bright, shiny, technical fix just over the horizon which could solve the looming crisis and allow us all continue our lives as usual, but the reality is more complex than that. Besides solutions like energy efficiency, we also need to look at those actions which can address both climate change and biodiversity loss simultaneously, such as banning peat burning and extraction and using the planning system much more effectively.

Nature-rich ecosystems absorb greenhouse gases, support pollinators, improve people’s mental health and help to store floodwater, to name just a few of their benefits. But we are depleting them fast and it is at our own peril that we fail to restore and protect them. The natural environment should be recognised as an essential part of the nation’s infrastructure and treated as such. It should be squarely within the remit of the National Infrastructure Commission to help the government restore and maximise its benefits. While government spending is necessary to harness these multiple benefits, the government should also enable systems change so businesses which rely on the natural environment can value it properly and invest to restore it.

Addressing the whole crisis, across the economy, will also create much needed sustainable, good quality jobs and this is one area in which we will be working to provide a robust evidence base.

3. Support private sector innovation
To support the ambition to address the environmental crisis, of course we need specific new policies and funding. There are some low hanging fruit, such as action to preserve and restore peat, as already mentioned. Our 2019 Acting on net zero now report set out the affordable policies that would significantly reduce UK emissions immediately (some of which the government are now acting on). But we also need policy frameworks that encourage private sector innovation and investment and aim to futureproof our economy across the board. The government’s proposals to build due diligence into forestry product supply chains are a welcome first step in addressing the UK’s global environmental footprint. However, house builders should have been building low carbon homes as standard for years, not working to an easily fudged set of requirements which they don’t need to act on until 2025. Manufacturers large and small should be given incentives to reduce resource use and make more use of recycled materials, as well as improve the energy efficiency of their processes. And we will need new post-Brexit carbon pricing arrangements to be finalised as a matter of urgency.

It is a challenging agenda, there’s no question about it. But we already have no option but to act in response to the extraordinary upheaval brought on by the pandemic. We have to rebuild in some way, and a positive, green renewal for the UK will provide a shot in the arm to the economy, improve people’s well-being and have resilience at its heart. The signs are hopeful that the government is up for the challenge.

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