analysis

Analysis: The UK government pins its hopes on a green industrial revolution

An EV charging point.

By Anders Lorenzen

The tune has changed in Whitehall, gone is the focus on Brexit, quite remarkable for a Prime Minister who based his leadership campaign on the subject. But facing intense pressure in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and with the UK being the hardest-hit country in Europe he has decided that a green recovery provides a positive vision for the UK. In addition, he knows this is at least one topic on which he can work together with the incoming Biden administration. 

So at the unusual time at 22:30 Tuesday evening, 17th of November, the government released its ten-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution.

But as the government plan unveils, campaigners are already arguing that it is not ambitious enough, even though, for example, the deadline dates for the completion of some existing projects is accelerated.

What does it say?

The UK government says the plan unlocks £12billion in government green spending, though a lot of it is money already pledged. The government estimates 250,000 new green jobs could be created. 

Energy

The Prime Minister has previously stated that he wants the UK to become the Saudi Arabia of wind power and the plan sets out to quadruple offshore wind power output to 40 gigawatts (GW) by 2030.  However, there is nothing in the plan about reviving the UK’s onshore wind industry. Closely tied to this is the ambition to generate 5 GW of low-carbon hydrogen capacity by 2030 to power industry, transport and home heating, so that by the end of this decade they will have created the first town to be powered entirely by hydrogen. 

Nuclear energy continues to divide climate advocates in the UK. Nevertheless, the government is investing in the future of the industry, in both advanced large scale nuclear and the relatively new phenomenon of small nuclear reactors pioneered by the British company Rolls Royce.

Transport

Arguably one of the plans boldest moves is to bring forward, from 2035 to 2030, the year when the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles will be banned. 

As diesel and petrol vehicles are being phased out electric vehicles (EV) and hybrids will continue to play a bigger role. The plan states it wants to accelerate the transition to EV’s and transform the infrastructure to better support them which means more charging points. As the use of EVs has been steadily growing in the UK so have charging points. 

But campaigners argue that it is going too slowly and it can be far too complicated.  The prime minister announced that £1.3 billion will be spent on rolling out charging points. Over the next four years, £500 million will be spent on the development of mass-scale production of EV batteries, and £582 million worth of grants will be available to encourage people to make the transition to ultra-low-emission vehicles. 

These plans are designed to change how we travel and encourage more cycling and walking but without setting any clear targets.  The sum of £5 billion has been set aside for investing in alternative greener ways of travelling including cycling, walking and buses. 

One of the often-overlooked parts of the green transition is the maritime sector. This sector is very important as many of our imported products are transported on big polluting cargo ships. The government is setting aside a very modest £20 million for a competition to develop clean maritime technology. 

Housing

The UK’s housing stock remains one of the most inefficient in Europe. And even newly built projects do not have the same stringent energy-efficient standards as do many of our European neighbours. Campaigners will therefore welcome some much-needed ambition in this area as the plan sets out a target to install 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028, which they say will create 50,000 jobs. In addition, they’re setting aside £1 billion next year into making new and existing homes and public buildings more efficient.  

This involves extending the Green Homes Grant voucher scheme by a year and making public sector buildings greener thus cutting bills for hospitals and schools, as part of the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme. But so far there is no information on whether building regulations will change. The government sees hydrogen as a key technology towards greener homes and will trial homes using hydrogen for heating and cooking.  

This project starting with a Hydrogen Neighbourhood in 2023, then a Hydrogen Village by 2025, with an aim for a Hydrogen Town – equivalent to tens of thousands of homes – before the end of the decade. £240 million will go into new hydrogen production facilities.

Carbon capture and nature

It has become clearer in recent years that a pathway to staying within 1.5 C target, carbon capture will need to happen. The government wants the UK to become a world leader in this technology and targets to remove 10 megatons (MT) of CO2 by 2030.  It says this is equivalent to all emissions from the industrial Humber today, an industrial area in northern England. They have set aside £200 million of new funding to create two carbon capture clusters by the mid-2020s, with another two set to be created by 2030. The biggest power plant in the UK, Drax, last year set out plans through carbon capture to become the world’s first carbon-negative business within ten years.

Many environmentalists argue that the natural landscape has for too long been overlooked in the UK. As a result, in its plan, the government have announced the planting of 30,000 hectares of trees every year. Many national parks in the UK have become bare and tree-less as a result of overgrazing by sheep, and the government seeks to reverse the trend with the planting of more trees. 

To achieve all these targets the government wants the City of London to become the global centre of green finance. 

More ambition needed

Announcing the plan, Prime Minister Johnson said: “My Ten Point Plan will create, support and protect hundreds of thousands of green jobs, whilst making strides towards net-zero by 2050. Our green industrial revolution will be powered by the wind turbines in Scotland and the North East, propelled by the electric vehicles made in the Midlands and advanced by the latest technologies developed in Wales, so we can look ahead to a more prosperous, greener future.”

Green groups largely welcomed the plans but called for more ambition.  Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, Mike Childs said: “Despite a number of positive commitments, the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan falls far short of the ambitious policy overhaul needed to demonstrate real global leadership on the climate crisis. A much bolder approach is needed if the UK is to create the hundreds of thousands of new green jobs and other benefits that building a cleaner, safer future will bring.” 

Tanya Steele from The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said this should just be the beginning from the government: “Today the Government has fired the starting gun on the action we need to see to really transform our transport, homes and economy to overcome the climate and nature emergency. The more we drive down emissions now, the more we will reap the rewards not just in tackling this crisis but in good jobs, cleaner air and a competitive edge for UK businesses in the growing global clean economy.”

Industry groups were more welcoming. Gill Nowell, a Director at Electric Vehicle Association England (EVA), said: “We welcome today’s announcement. Drivers that go electric in England typically do so as they are concerned about air pollution, climate change, or want to significantly reduce their fuel costs. We see EVs as the go-to car choice for many, as they become increasingly more affordable and available.”

Warm words or action

As the UK prepares to host the crucial UN climate summit COP26 in a year`s time the focus is on them to take the lead on ambitious policies. Climate advocates welcome the plan as important first steps but that the UK should and can do more. 

Environmentalists would like to see a lot more attention given to protecting nature, more space set aside for conservation areas and rewilding not only on land but in the British waters, and less focus on even more road building. It is worth noting that in the same week the green plan was unveiled the Prime Minister also increased the defence budget with £16.5 billion which is more than the entire budget for the Ten Point Plan.

And as always with Johnson, he is big on words, but less on action – he loves announcing big infrastructure projects and spending. And so, he is possibly announcing this plan as he wants the UK to think about other things than COVID-19 and Brexit, and wishes to be remembered for delivering something memorable that will go down in history. But whether he can actually achieve what even climate advocates are calling modest targets, or is this just more big words, remains to be seen.

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