Revolution not evolution: The Government’s Ten Point Plan

By Dr Jonathan Marshall, Head of Analysis @JMarshall_ECIU

Published:13 November 2020

Assuming that revelations inside Downing Street don’t cause delay, the Prime Minister is expected to deliver the Government’s plan for a green industrial revolution within days.

The speech represents a pivotal moment on UK climate action, especially in the absence of the slew of strategies, white papers and decarbonisation plans long-promised. It also takes on additional significance as Boris Johnson leans on the UK’s position as a climate leader to woo President-Elect Biden.

There has been no shortage of attempts to steer the Government’s thinking away from all things innovative and shiny, with a host of ‘alt-plans’ put forward by think tanks, green coalitions and political parties.

Whether Mr Johnson takes these suggestions on board or not, he will surely be looking to convince international onlookers that the UK is living up to its own hype, and to make waves domestically now that there’s less than a year until COP26.

Reputation

The Prime Ministers imminent green speech will have ramifications on the 'Special Relationship' with the US. Image: Andrew Parsons. CCL
The Prime Ministers imminent green speech will have ramifications on the 'Special Relationship' with the US. Image: Andrew Parsons. CCL

The UK’s hasty retreat from coal power has been a major diplomatic tool for UK representatives talking up climate action on the international stage.

With the next major flag in the ground ahead of COP26 – the UK’s NDC – unlikely to be ready for another month or so, ministers will be looking for an announcement with comparable international gravitas.

The widely-trailed decision on ending petrol and diesel car sales in 2030, until now causing sleepless nights on Downing Street over industry reaction, will easily make the waves Johnson is surely looking for.

And it’s not hard to see why. The UK remains Europe’s second largest car market, despite the recent Covid downturn. We Brits buy more than two million new cars each year, the vast majority of which are imported. A strong decision would reverberate around the world.

Delivering a solid signal to the world’s automotive industry is exactly the sort of message that the UK can take onto the global stage; and with the car industry looking for a way out of its Covid woes and the link between air pollution and Covid becoming ever clearer, now is just the time to do so.

Techno-optimist

It is no secret that the Johnson Government favours technological solutions to climate change.

And while this has angered some, this week’s speech (setting out a green industrial revolution, remember) is likely to lean heavily on innovation, technology and jobs.

Carbon capture, nuclear power, hydrogen and low-carbon aviation – all bugbears of an NGO or two – will likely feature, with natural options such as tree planting and peatland protection and restoration omitted.

Nuclear power is among a host of technical solutions to climate that are expected to feature. Image: EDF
Nuclear power is among a host of technical solutions to climate that are expected to feature. Image: EDF

Is this a problem? No, not at first glance. Evidence from official advisors and others suggests that all of these technological solutions will very likely be needed to reboot and clean up Britain’s economy – there is no harm in bundling them all together. And nature’s day may come later, in the context of the Environment Bill and moves to make nature-based solutions a priority area for COP26.

It’s hard to lock in long-term, low-carbon jobs in northern industrial clusters, for example, without technological progress; while the odd punt on more less-proven (but likely necessary) ideas such as direct air capture or zero-carbon aviation could lead to new home-grown industries, if sufficiently incubated in early stages.

But this shouldn’t preclude comparable action in other sectors, ideally fairly sharpish. The CCC’s Sixth Carbon Budget recommendations in December will bring a stark reminder of the scale of action needed. The Net Zero Strategy – pledged for next year and hopefully able to dodge the endless delays that have blighted other green documents – will not do what it says on the tin without plans for nature restoration, improved government communications around tricky subjects such as diet and housing decarbonisation, and action to clean up the UK’s international footprint.

Money, money, money

As sure as the day comes before night, announcements on climate change are preceded by a host of spending demands.

Over the past week or so, spending asks from £14bn to £30bn+ have been publicised, based on a host of recommendations and targets. This framing means that, for some, the only measure of success is how much taxpayer cash is sloshed around.

But what is the response if the investment goes elsewhere, into nuclear or biofuels, for example, or if ideas such as ‘Just Transition Funds’ are delivered through schemes with more Tory-friendly names?

This is a roundabout way of saying that, while clearly the Government does need to spend more of our money on getting back on track to net zero - and while ministers have public permission to do so, given levels of concern on climate change and support for the net zero transition - it is not the only measure of success.

Cutting carbon, creating jobs, cleaning up industry, and ensuring that the technology needed to underpin the net zero transition is British-made needs more than just money. If Mr Johnson gets it right, the Ten Point Plan should be a vital moment in setting out the rest of the puzzle.

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