Despite the positive steps, two key questions remain unanswered: What is the strategy? And where are the people? Nick Eyre responds to the plan.
The Government has now published its long-awaited plan for delivering the legal requirement of zero carbon emissions from the UK by 2050.
Having a plan is a significant moment for UK energy and climate policy, and much of the content is progress. In particular, the framing as a “green industrial revolution” recognises that the scale of the task to transition away from the fossil fuels, which have powered industrial society for the last two centuries.
There is broad agreement that achieving zero carbon will be a multi-decadal process not a quick fix, with innovation needed in areas as diverse as energy efficiency, renewable energy, energy storage and the production and use of hydrogen. However, much of what is needed can be delivered with existing technology, so the early constraints on rapid progress are financial, social and political rather than technical.
Much of the media attention on the Plan has been on the proposals for electric cars. The Plan proposes investment of £2.8 billion in manufacturing of batteries, electric vehicles and installation of their charging infrastructure. Electric vehicles are much more energy efficient and will become genuinely ‘zero carbon’ in use as electricity is decarbonised. Switching away from vehicles based on oil is obviously a major change, so the decision to bring forward to 2030 the phase out date for sales of new petrol and diesel cars is a critical statement of intent to bring forward investment in electrification.
The Ten Point Plan also begins to address the problem of decarbonising heat, which involves the challenging prospect of phasing out natural gas boilers. It sets an ambitious goal of 600,000 energy-efficient electric heat pump installations annually by 2028. There is also ambition for the use of hydrogen as a natural gas substitute, with trials at increasing scales, leading a ‘Hydrogen Town’ by 2030.
What is the strategy?
Despite the positive steps, two key questions remain unanswered: What is the strategy? And where are the people?
Having a ‘Ten Point Plan’ in advance of a strategy seems a little odd. Fundamental questions like “how much should energy demand be reduced?” “How much will be delivered from different renewable sources?” “How much will it cost?” and “Who will pay for what?” remain unanswered. And there are gaps in the Plan that raise many questions.
There is welcome support for offshore wind, but the generation capacity mentioned of 40GW falls far short of what is ultimately needed. More worryingly, there is scarcely a mention of onshore wind or solar photovoltaics, despite these being the cheapest zero carbon generation options. Both could be developed as significant sources of energy, but this would require a more positive approach than in recent years in English national planning policy. Instead, there are commitments to “advanced nuclear technologies” and nuclear fusion, both of which would be far more expensive options, and neither of which has a realistic hope of generating anything until after the electricity system needs to have been largely decarbonised.
More than half of the 40% reductions in carbon dioxide emissions over the last 30 years has been achieved through using energy more efficiently. And every credible analysis of decarbonisation pathways shows that investment in sustainable buildings and mobility, to reduce their energy needs, will continue to be critical. Moreover, these are the measures we know can be delivered and create jobs. They should be a major element of post-Covid investment plans. Yet the Ten Point Plan does not make them a priority.
The Plan mentions the intention to spend £9.2 billion on support public transport, cycling and walking. This looks ambitious, but, on closer inspection, none of this is new money. So local Councils, already in deep financial trouble due to the combined effects of austerity and coronavirus, are being expected to do more in these areas with less resource. At the same time, existing plans for road building, totalling £27 billion, have been retained, despite the well-established link between road building and increased car use. Similarly, the section of the Plan on aviation focuses on ambitious goals for alternative fuels, but ignores the subsidies for airports and aviation fuels that increase demand for this least sustainable mode of travel.
For building efficiency improvement, £1.1 billion has been allocated for the next financial year, but nothing after that. This fails to recognise the need for long-term policy stability to promote investment. The resource allocated is still less than the support that existed prior to 2012, when the disastrous Green Deal policy decimated the insulation industry. It is wholly inadequate to catalysing delivery of the goals for either improved insulation or low carbon heating technologies.
What about communities?
Perhaps the biggest gap in the Plan is its neglect of people and communities. Any industrial revolution will involve major societal changes. A green industrial revolution will not happen without fundamental changes to buildings, transport and planning. As the outputs of the recent UK Climate Assembly show, citizens are capable of making reasoned choices in these areas, but they need to be well-informed and involved in decision-making processes. Education, skills and training will also be critical, especially in sectors where there are major changes in employment, for example in heating system installation. All parts of government, national and local, with relevant responsibilities have to be part of the solution. Yet local authorities merit just one reference in the Plan and that is to how to monitor their performance. Skills and training are mentioned as important, but with no new resource commitments. The role of bottom-up activity such as community projects is ignored, as are the need for public engagement and consumer advice.
Overall, the Plan reads like shopping list of interesting technologies that might be grafted onto the existing energy system. It fails to recognise the more fundamental needs for change and links to other policy areas. It does not provide a clear pathway to zero emissions, nor does it commit the resources required. It reads more like a document designed to appease the main corporate lobbyists with access to 10 Downing Street, rather than a set of carefully analysed priorities. It is certainly better than nothing, but very far from a coherent strategy for a ‘green industrial revolution’. What is needed now is such a strategy.
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