Can the government deliver on its green recovery rhetoric?

The government’s 10 point green recovery plan is imminent, but, as two new reports highlight, welcome support for climate action needs to be backed by proper funding and ambitious reforms

The anticipation is building. Joe Biden has won the US presidency on an historically ambitious climate platform. A coronavirus vaccine may be on the horizon. And governments and businesses are lining up to tout their unwavering commitment to tackling the climate crisis.

Before the month is out the UK government is set to move its decarbonisation efforts up several gears. As Boris Johnson again reiterated last night, a 10 point green recovery plan will soon be unveiled to much fanfare from Number 10. It will almost certainly promise more support for clean power, energy efficiency, electric vehicles, green finance, hydrogen, CCS, tree-planting, and a lot more besides.

Crucially it should be followed in the next few months by detailed decarbonisation policies through the long-awaited Energy White Paper, National Infrastructure Strategy, Green Heating Strategy, Hydrogen Strategy, and Transport Decarbonisation Plan, all of which should knit together to deliver an upgraded net zero compatible national climate action plan, or NDC in the UN jargon.

These various moves will be hugely welcome and will provide clear investment signals to businesses that the net zero transition is gathering pace. It will also lend further credibility to the government’s calls for other nations to come forward with their own net zero strategies ahead of the COP26 Summit next year.

However, two new reports this week underscore why this new wave of net zero policies will be met with considerable scepticism in some quarters, while also pointing to some of the critical challenges the government has to address if it wants its new green recovery strategy to be a success.

Green Alliance’s latest analysis of the UK green infrastructure investment gap highlights how the government is both failing to deliver low carbon investment at the scale required to put the economy on a trajectory to net zero and continuing to approve high carbon infrastructure that undermines efforts to meet the target.

Similarly, the National Audit Office’s assessment of one of the government’s previous sweeping green strategies – the 25 Year Environment Plan and its eye-catching pledge to leave the environment in a better state than it was found – is scathing, documenting inadequate progress against various targets, insufficient budgets, flawed governance structures, and a lack of political focus.

The hope is that the government’s recent green rhetoric, surging public and corporate support for climate action, and competitive clean technologies should all mean that this time it is different.

But equally, whether it’s Brexit or the pandemic, the government has a nasty habit of talking up the prospect of sunlit uplands only to blunder its way through the hard yards of competent governance, political bravery, and policy ingenuity required to actually deliver on its promised destination. It is notable how the Prime Minister’s launch last night of the year-long countdown to COP26 was completely overshadowed by in-fighting over which advisor gets which job titled in Number 10.

It is too easy to envisage a vague 10 point plan that hits all the right notes and promises action in all the right areas, but lacks the policy detail and a multi-billion pound spending commitments that are needed to engineer a real step change in the pace of decarbonisation. Even where the right decisions are made, such as with the Chancellor’s announcement this week of mandatory climate risk reporting from 2025 or the Green Homes Grant scheme, there are questions over whether a sufficiently ambitious timeline is being pursued or whether the government has the bandwidth to execute on its bold plans.

The 10 point plan could be transformational and there is a lot riding on it, but if it is to deliver on its considerable promise then it is vital that offers a lot more than warm words about the importance of offshore wind or the potential of green hydrogen. It also needs to unlock large scale investment and demonstrate a willingness to take some tough decisions in potentially controversial areas such as the phasing out of petrol and diesel cars, the replacement of conventional boilers, the financing of new nuclear, and the transition away from high carbon infrastructure and industries.

Deliver all of that and the result will be a genuine green recovery that drives an new era of sustainable development for the UK. Flatter to deceive and the National Audit Office report on it all in a decade’s time does not bear thinking about.

A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.

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