Key members of the UK’s green economy have been offering their thoughts on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 recovery package, the fundamentals of which have now been unveiled. The general feeling is one of dismay, following months of campaigning.
In a speech delivered in the West Midlands this morning, Johnson unveiled an initial £5bn for infrastructure and skills projects across the UK. He vowed to “build, build, build” and bring about a “New Deal” for the nation, in which the rebound from the economic crisis borne of the Covid-19 pandemic addresses key social issues.
But the New Deal is far from “Green”, key NGOs, think-tanks, trade bodies and thought leaders are warning.
Johnson has received a string of policy briefings and open letters in recent weeks, urging him to align the recovery package with the UK’s net-zero target and to prioritise funding for sectors spurring the low-carbon transition or working to protect nature. He and Chancellor Rishi Sunak have repeatedly assured the authors of such documents, as well as MPs, journalists and the general public, that policies to boost the manufacture of low-carbon goods and to decarbonise the nation’s most-emitting sectors would form a “vital” part of the Government’s recovery strategy.
Now, key figures are accusing Johnson and Sunak of overstating their “green” commitments and calling for better environmental provisions to be unveiled by the Treasury next month.
Here, edie rounds up the key concerns which the package has raised across the UK’s green economy.
Poor provisions for retrofitting
Buildings account for around 40% of global emissions and one-third of energy use in the UK and, while improved standards for new housing and business properties are forthcoming, the UK Government has repeatedly been accused of failing to support the decarbonisation of existing stock.
The Department for Education has this week outlined a £1bn package to retrofit schools, but Students Organising for Sustainability claims that £23bn would be necessary to ensure that all schools are net-zero by 2030.
More broadly, the Conservative Party had pledged £9.2bn for retrofitting in its 2019 general election manifesto – a figure which groups including the Sustainable Energy Association and Association for Distributed Energy (ADE) were keen to see come to fruition in the recovery package.
“Investing in a national buildings renovation programme will support local jobs and SMEs right now and will be an important part of the UK’s green economic recovery,” the ADE’s head of external affairs Lucy Symons-Jones said. “The £9.2bn promised in the Conservative Party manifesto will support the engineers and installers who are ready to deliver an immediate national building retrofit programme. Without this funding, these local skilled workers face redundancy.”
The EEIG has also expressed disappointment in the lack of energy efficiency provisions in Johnson’s speech. The body’s previous research claimed that 40,000 jobs could be created in the UK within 24 months, through an ambitious retrofitting programme, with a further 110,000 roles created through to 2030.
“Energy efficiency [is] perhaps the most urgent of all infrastructure priorities,” UKGBC chief executive Julie Hirogoyen added. “[It[ can create jobs right around the country, improve health and reduce costs to NHS, and increase consumer spending power by lowering energy bills.”
A lack of movement on heat and flexible energy
11 months ago, Citizens Advice warned that the Government’s failure to implement a “credible” framework for the decarbonisation of heat for commercial and domestic use could undermine public confidence in the net-zero transition.
BEIS has since faced repeated calls to accelerate the development of a national heat strategy, particularly since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic.
While the Department announced a £25m pot for heat pumps this week, such a strategy still seems not to be forthcoming. Moreover, Johnson’s speech made no specific reference to heat.
Businesses including Flexitricity, SE2 and Lux Nova have warned that the UK is missing an opportunity here, not only to decarbonise, but to improve wellbeing and to reduce NHS costs.
Poor clarity on skills
Up to 2.2 million Brits could face unemployment unless the UK’s Covid-19 recovery package contains measures to reskill them for “green-collar” roles, Mayors and council leaders representing 25 million residents warned yesterday (29 June).
Calls for increased skills measures have also been made by the likes of National Grid, Oxford University academics and The Energy Transitions Commission – a body representing 40 global organisations including major employers like Heathrow Airport, BP and HSBC.
The UK Government was reportedly set to launch a dedicated fund for reskilling Brits to work in the renewable energy, cleantech and built environment sectors, coupled with additional investment in these sectors to assist with their expansion. The Conservative Party is notably targeting two million “green-collar” jobs in the UK by 2030.
While Johnson did make passing reference to skills in his speech, any green strings were notably absent.
“Jobs, skills and infrastructure are core to the UK’s green recovery,” the Energy Networks Association’s chief executive David Smith said. “Building ahead of need so that electric vehicles can be rolled out at pace, gas can be greened and industry can be decarbonised, creating the green collar jobs that will keep the UK at the front of the fight against climate change.”
“The Prime Minister’s speech rightly identifies the importance of ‘building back greener’ but this has to be rapidly backed up by support for shovel-ready projects and policy decisions that are aligned with the UK’s climate, environmental and clean growth goals,” Aldersgate Group director Nick Molho added. “Such an approach is not just needed to meet the UK’s environmental ambitions, but it is also essential to ensure that the UK’s recovery plan can address key public interest concerns around unemployment, regional inequality and resilience.”
Continued investment in high-carbon sectors
“A real Green New Deal wouldn’t just mean more spending on infrastructure,” campaign group Green New Deal UK tweeted during Johnson’s speech in Dudley. “It would mean a rewiring of the British economy to be climate-resilient, it would mean a pay rise for key workers – and it would mean spending enough money to meet the challenges in front of us.”
The tweet is alluding to the fact that the package contains a £100m pot for road building programmes, in addition to the £27bn promised in the 2020 Budget. Moreover, “green strings” relating to the package’s funding, either in full or in part, are yet to be confirmed.
In contrast, the European Union has ringfenced 25% of its €750bn fund to help the bloc recover from the coronavirus crisis to mitigating the climate crisis.
“Johnson’s plan to ‘build, build, build’ includes a massive road-building programme and a deeply alarming deregulation of the housing market,” Scottish Green Party co-leader Patrick Harvie said. “Both of these could cause enormous environmental damage, as well as increasing emissions.”
“Boris Johnson’s speech should have fired the starting gun on a healthier, more resilient future for the UK,” Green Alliance’s executive director Shaun Spiers said.
“Unfortunately, the PM seems to have got off to false start. This statement today is about putting shovels in the ground, but there is no point in that in the long term if it digs the UK deeper into trouble…Let’s hope the Chancellor is listening and ups the government’s game next week – putting people, climate and nature front and centre of the government’s recovery strategy.”
“To avoid catastrophe, we need a low-carbon nature-powered recovery, not one weighed down by tarmac and concrete,” WWF UK’s chief executive Tanya Steele added. “This is another missed opportunity – and we don’t have many chances left.”
Nature hanging in the balance
On the “nature-powered” aspect, it is worth noting that a recommitment to reforest parts of the country by planting more than 75,000 acres of trees every year by 2025 has been made. A £40m fund to boost local conservation projects has also been announced, and is expected to create around 3,000 jobs while safeguarding 2,000 existing jobs.
Nonetheless, Johnson also said he would be willing to remove wildlife that presents an obstacle to building work on key infrastructure projects.
“An economic recovery which puts investment in nature first would reap big dividends in tackling climate crisis – helping to absorb up to a third of UK emissions – as well as tackling health inequalities, and providing more jobs, skills and opportunities to support the next generation,” the Wildlife Trusts’ chief executive Craig Bennett said.