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Will the PM’s plan put the environment at the heart of the UK’s economic recovery?

After weeks of uncertainty about when and whether the ten point plan would be launched, it’s finally out. This is a really significant step, as it makes clear that the government sees the need to tackle climate change and boost low carbon industries as central to supporting economic recovery and creating jobs across the country. And it reflects the strong public support that exists to prioritise action on climate and nature in the UK’s response to the pandemic.

Positive steps to recovery
While the PM’s speech at this year’s party conference majored on offshore wind, a sector where the UK has already made remarkable progress, this plan for a green industrial revolution goes much wider to cover a range of sectors. This highlights the growing awareness that emissions need to be reduced across all parts of the economy as well as the huge scope to create new green jobs. And, despite concerns that it would focus heavily on new technologies, it does recognise the range of sectors and types of solutions that will be needed to meet our carbon targets.

Digging into the specifics, there are some very positive steps. In particular, having long advocated for it, we were very pleased to see that the government has shown genuine ambition by bringing forward the phase out of new conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans to 2030. This shows clear commitment to addressing climate change and puts the UK at the forefront of the global electric vehicle revolution. It will help to take polluting cars off the road sooner, cut carbon from the largest emitting sector of the economy, stimulate investment in electric vehicle and battery manufacturing and promote green jobs across the country. The additional funding provided, and the reference to policy to drive the uptake of electric vehicles, indicates that the government understands that a comprehensive package of measures is necessary to achieve the phase out by the target date (although it is worth adding that a zero emissions vehicles mandate on car manufacturers will be a vital for this to be a success).

Although no new funding was directed at increasing public transport and active mobility, it was one of Boris’s ten points. This is such an important component of a future transport system, as the congestion, health impacts and pollution won’t vanish with electric vehicles. A rounded strategy will mean that not every fossil fuel car has to be simply replaced with an electric one and that “we must increase the share of journeys taken by public transport, cycling and walking”. This lays the foundation for the Transport Decarbonisation Plan that must take forward this agenda.  

It’s also encouraging to see new funding for energy efficiency and low carbon heating, and the commitment to install 600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028. This, along with the funding announced earlier this year, highlights the government’s desire to tackle one of the most challenging sectors to decarbonise. These signals should lay the foundation for a longer term programme of investment, incentives and regulations, needed to leverage more private funding and skills programmes. There is potential for tens of thousands of new jobs in this sector in the near future, but the policy will benefit many people across the country, as it will lead to lower energy bills and more comfortable homes. The plan to launch an improved Energy Technology List, will also help businesses to reduce their energy use and costs.

And, despite the confusing post-publication removal of the reference to a 2023 deadline, it’s really positive that the ten point plan aims to bring forward the date to start the Future Homes Standard. Building homes now that are not fit for the future makes no sense, incurring high energy bills and future retrofit costs for householders, on top of locking in unnecessary climate impacts. The government should also ensure that the Future Homes Standard itself is strengthened, to enhance the efficiency of a building’s fabric, address embodied carbon and give local authorities the chance to be more ambitious.  

Finally, the plan usefully outlines a set of actions to develop new technologies, such as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage. We hope this will inform choices about where they should be used at scale, while not delaying action to develop proven measures (for example, housing is one of the sectors where there are clear alternatives that should be prioritised).

There is still a big funding gap
The government’s commitment to additional investment is of course very welcome. But the estimated £4 billion of new funding promised is only a small fraction of the £24 billion per year that we estimate will be needed to scale up proven measures to tackle the climate emergency and nature’s decline, such as expanding public transport and cycle lanes, retrofitting buildings and restoring precious ecosystems.

By comparison, France and Germany have allocated around €30 billion and €50 billion respectively in  additional environmental spending. In particular, although nature features as one of the ten points, addressing the whole environmental crisis should be a key pillar of economic recovery. Wildlife and Countryside Link estimate that the government needs to invest £6.8 billion a year in effective support for nature restoration and sustainable land use. Only £80 million has been committed so far.

The plan also largely overlooks the role of resource efficiency and the transition to a circular economy. Apart from a small mention of the forthcoming policy framework for better product design, the plan doesn’t provide any further detail on how the government plans to boost activities such as reuse, remanufacturing, repair and high value recycling. This is such a missed opportunity, given that scaling up these circular economy activities could be contributing to economic recovery, with scope to create over 500,000 direct jobs across the country by 2030 and add £10 billion a year to the UK businesses’ collective bottom line.

It’s definitely not yet a plan
This week’s statement by the PM undoubtedly puts environmental priorities and opportunities at the forefront of the government’s strategy for economic recovery. But, it’s definitely not yet the ‘plan’ it claims to be. As it stands it won’t stimulate the scale of private investment needed. To do this, the government now needs to publish a raft of long awaited strategies (including the National Infrastructure Strategy, the Energy White Paper and the Waste Prevention Plan, amongst others), all of which should align with its 2050 net zero target. The spending review is also the chance for the government to commit to more investment in climate and nature and reflect its own stated priorities with adequate financing.

A comprehensive approach would put the UK in a strong position to meet net zero (we will be updating our assessment of progress towards that soon, so watch this space).  And nothing less is acceptable for the UK to be seen as a credible host, inspiring international action necessary to address the climate emergency at next year’s UN summit in Glasgow.

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