Boris Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new 10-point plan for greening the UK is welcomed, but while some call it “game changing”, many argue that the £4 billion (AU$7.26 billion) attached is not nearly enough to meet the needs of the moment.

Key points of the plan

The headline pledge is to bring forward a ban on diesel and petrol cars from 2040 by a decade, with substantial funding for electric vehicles and charging points, public transport, cycling, and walking.

Around 40GW of offshore wind is also promised by 2030, plus development work to create up to 5GW of low carbon hydrogen – which is not all generated from renewables and therefore dependent on another long cherished project of conventional capitalism, carbon capture & storage.

So far this has proved a pipe dream, as has affordable, quick to deliver nuclear power, which also receives £0.5 (AU$0.9) billion in research and development.

To improve natural resources and sequester carbon, 30,000 hectares of trees promised to be planted a year – great if this is to be mixed woodland.

More research and development cash will go on decarbonising air and Marine transport, and a further £1 (AU$1.81) billion for greening homes and public buildings.

Finally, there is a pledge to make the City of London a global centre of green finance.

Writing in the Financial Times, Johnson says: “We will use science to rout the coronavirus, and we must use the same extraordinary powers of invention to repair the economic damage from Covid-19, and to build back better.

“Now is the time to plan for a green recovery with high-skilled jobs that give people the satisfaction of knowing they are helping make the country cleaner, greener and more beautiful.”

He speculated that these jobs would be “electric vehicle technicians in the Midlands, construction and installation workers in the North East and Wales, specialists in advanced fuels in the North West, agroforestry practitioners in Scotland, and grid system installers everywhere. And we will help people train for these new green jobs through our Lifetime Skills Guarantee.”

Some are questioning whether unemployed shopworkers and small business owners, who represent the majority of those put out of work by the pandemic, can retrain in these skills and find gainful employment where they live.

Not quite enough in the right spots

The £525 (AU$953) million to support large and small nuclear together is comparatively small money, points out antinuclear campaigner David Lowry. “It starts the ball rolling down the hill, which will in future years demand more and more money, so as not to waste this initial tranche.”

Greenpeace UK’s head of politics, Rebecca Newsom, celebrated “the end of the road for polluting cars and vans and a historic turning point on climate action”.

He said that while switching to electric vehicles is no panacea, “ditching new polluting petrol and diesel in 2030 could put the government back on track to meeting its climate commitments”.

But Greenpeace deplored that “the Prime Minister remains fixated on other speculative solutions, such as nuclear and hydrogen from fossil fuels, that will not be taking us to zero emissions anytime soon, if ever.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland’s director, Dr Richard Dixon, went much further, calling the whole package “deeply disappointing”.

“What we needed was investment in measures that would…create green jobs immediately. Instead, the UK government is clearly living in fantasy land with far too much reliance on long-term false solutions to the climate crisis like carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and nuclear.

“The funding on the table is a fraction of what’s needed to bring emissions down over the next decade, and the plan lacks credible detail about how it would create decent green jobs and ensure a truly just and green recovery from COVID-19.”

Most environmentalist find that while electricity from renewables is getting cheaper and cheaper it is impossible to understand why the UK government continues to throw public money at eye-wateringly expensive large reactors.

“Fortunately, Scotland has turned its back on new reactors,” observes Dixon.

Energy efficiency budget “slashed”

The £1 billion (AU$1.81 billion) for energy efficiency was criticised as “tiny compared to the scale of what really needs to be done” and “mostly a repeat of an announcement from the Chancellor earlier in the year”.

Leading energy efficiency champion, Andrew Warren, alleges that the government is slashing its energy efficiency program by 80 per cent.

Originally, according to the Conservative manifesto in 2019, there was a pledge to “help lower energy bills by investing £9.2 (AU$16.7) billion in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals”.

Warren, the Chairman of the British Energy Efficiency Federation says: “The current six month budget for the Green Homes grant and public sector is £2.5 (AU$4.54) billion, now cut by 80 per cent to £1 (AU$1.81) billion per annum. And unlike all energy supply projects, nothing (is) committed after March 2022.”

A commitment to install 60,000 heat pumps in buildings every year by 2028 faces a building regulation that will only start banning the fitting of new gas fired heating in or after 2025.

Labour’s shadow business secretary, Ed Miliband, too, says that only some of the funding in the plan is new. “It doesn’t remotely meet the scale of what is needed to tackle the unemployment emergency and climate emergency we are facing, and pales in comparison to the tens of billions committed by France and Germany.”

Gas to live on

How does the gas industry respond to news of its forthcoming demise? By saying the announcement is premature: “The UK has a great track record of setting arbitrary figures and going on to miss them. This is another one in the making. The plan completely overlooks the fact that heat pumps won’t work everywhere,” says George Webb, CEO of Liquid Gas UK.

It added that it is supporting the net zero target by working to provide bioLPG to off-grid homes, while Natural Gas World predictably celebrates the investment in carbon capture and hydrogen, which will help keep the gas industry alive.

Adam Strudwick, principal at architect Perkins and Will, also says there isn’t enough for eco-refurb: “The built environment is responsible for 40 per cent of UK carbon emissions; clearly, that needs to change. There needs to be an incentive for large multinational firms and tech companies, who are buying the bulk of existing real estate stock, to retrofit buildings from the inside out.”

David Thorpe is the author of ‘One Planet’ Cities and Director of the One Planet Centre Community Interest Company in the UK.

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