It became clear early on that the government would need to create a strategy for the UK to recover from the economic impact of coronavirus. Since then, many voices have called for this recovery to be a ‘green’ one. Although fighting coronavirus is an immediate challenge, the long-term threat of climate change remains. If we require stimulated economic intervention anyway, why not combine it with a strategy to cut the country’s carbon emissions? After all, it is our cavalier attitude to waste, production, and consumerism that drive climate change.
This desire for a green recovery is not just buzzwords posed by thinktanks and environmental organisations, either. A report by the Climate Assembly UK, published in the Guardian, states that most people would continue with the lifestyle changes necessitated by coronavirus to tackle climate change.
In the run up to the government’s economic announcements, it seemed like the UK waited for news of its green recovery almost optimistically. However, Boris Johnston’s New Deal for Britain and Rishi Sunak’s summer economic statement left a lot to be desired. While both gave a nod to environmental initiatives, it certainly wasn’t the climate-centric approach we hoped for. Especially not when you consider the amount of effort (and investment) our European neighbours are deploying in the climate change fight.
What has the Government promised?
As part of his New Deal, Boris Johnston announced a £40 million investment for local conservation projects. As well as creating 3,000 environment jobs and safeguarding a further 2,000, this also includes a provision for tree planting. The Prime Minister promised plans to plant over 75,000 acres of trees a year by 2025.
In his summer statement, Rishi Sunak’s presented a strategy to improve energy efficiency in UK buildings. The Green Homes Grant provides £2bn for homeowners to improve the energy efficiency of their home through insulation. As well as cutting household energy bills and improve living conditions, this would also cut carbon emissions. A further £1bn is earmarked for improving the energy efficiency of social housing and public sector buildings.
While both these initiatives are positive, it’s disappointing that these small nods are the full extent of the government’s green interventions. In fact, most of their plans for economic recovery focus on polluting and carbon-intensive activities that are not in line with the UK’s climate change targets.
When you look at the rest of the UK’s plans for economic recovery, Sunak’s Green Homes Grant and Boris Johnson’s tree planting promise look like greenwashing: small environmental tokens designed to make the rest of the government’s plans appear palatable.
The message attached to the Prime Minister’s New Deal is “build, build, build”. The strategy promises funding for developing the UK’s roads, railways, town centres and highstreets, hospitals, and educational institutions. While green developments of such infrastructure are possible, it doesn’t seem like this is the government’s intention. Not only is infrastructure construction polluting and carbon-intensive, it further embeds us into high carbon systems. What we need is system reform.
Some environmental campaigners are even calling the government’s strategy “unlawful”. They claim that the proposed infrastructure development would be impossible while fulfilling the UK’s obligations to the Paris Agreement, which are legally binding.
While we wholly support an effort to make the UK’s homes more energy-efficient, implementing subsidies is not a perfect solution. Such schemes are short-term, acting as more of a sticking plaster. Our homes may be more energy-efficient, but unless we also see an attitude and education shift, many households will continue with the same carbon-intensive behaviour.
Could we learn from Germany’s green recovery plan?
Many environmental activists have decried the government’s economic plans, stating that it is categorically not a green recovery. Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, told the Financial Times that Riski Sunak’s announcements were “dwarfed by green recovery commitments in Germany and France”.
Germany, in particular, has pulled out all the stops with its truly green economic recovery plan. The German government has announced a €130bn stimulus package to kickstart its economy, featuring at least €40bn for climate initiatives.
Crucially, Germany’s plans incorporate decarbonising infrastructure reform. Germany’s €40bn climate fund includes at least €7bn for hydrogen infrastructure. Using existing gas pipelines, hydrogen is a clean fuelling option where electric vehicles are inappropriate (lorries, industrial vehicles, etc). The only by-product is clean water, but this solution is very energy intensive and requires a lot of renewable energy.
The German government also doubled the subsidy for purchasing electric vehicles to €6,000. Since Germany manufactures a lot of its own cars, this is a doubly smart move for stimulating its economy
A missed opportunity
The coronavirus pandemic has provided many people with an unusual opportunity to evaluate their habits. Early on, the crisis sparked an increased understanding of the severity of the climate change risk; 70% of Britons surveyed said they believed global warming is as serious as coronavirus.
This increased awareness and willingness to adapt provides a unique moment in the climate change fight. This could have been the tipping point for the long-term behavioural change required to fight climate change. And yet, the government’s recovery strategies risk squandering the opportunity.
Many climate and environmental experts have their own opinions on what’s missing from the government’s economic recovery. Personally, we find the lack of mention of offshore wind jarring. The UK is a world leader in this renewable energy form, and yet there are no plans to upgrade or expand the infrastructure. Additionally, it seems that no provision has been made for greater training and apprenticeships in the renewables space.
So far, the UK’s plans for economic recovery leave a lot to be desired. However, it’s possible that more initiative will be announced as the summer progresses. The government’s National Infrastructure Strategy is now 18 months overdue. Let’s hope that this plan for “core economic infrastructure, including energy networks, road and rail, flood defences and waste” has greening our country’s infrastructure at its heart.