How is the glass? Half full? Half empty? Lying crushed on the ground? Raised in the air in victory?
The long-awaited release of the government’s long-awaited Net Zero Strategy provides an opportunity for reflection, a long microsecond to catch one’s breath before this shocking and chaotic fall of climate-related developments continues, an opportunity to honestly answer the question “how.” How’s it going ? “
It is possible to gut the new Net Zero strategy, and some will seize this opportunity.
The strategy has many glaring flaws and missed opportunities. Energy efficiency – the most obvious investment that co-generates benefits – remains seriously underfunded. Crucial proposals to revive the UK’s nuclear pipeline, tackle industrial emissions and build a hydrogen industry are still poorly detailed. The various funding pledges look good on paper, but represent a level of direct government investment that suggests the Prime Minister’s promise of a post-Covid Rooseveltian stimulus package will not be kept. The Strategy has little to say about public engagement, whether it be the controversial topics of changing diets and reducing the number of thefts or the simpler need to turn off lights and adopt clean technologies. There aren’t enough new ideas on how to tackle the worsening net zero skills shortage or elegantly pull the UK out of its fossil fuel dependency and enable a just transition. The scandalous failure to plan for a collapse in fuel tax revenues continues. The Strategy has too little to say about planning reform, local government or comprehensive governance reforms. There is not enough funding to stimulate natural carbon sinks and the plan does nothing to stop the environmental disaster of the burnt peatlands. From sustainable aviation fuels to direct capture of the air, much of the government’s plans rest on the characteristic techno-optimism of ministers.
More generally, much of what was advertised could and should have been delivered years ago. Too much time has been wasted, much of it under a Conservative government. It’s not even clear at this point that the package will meet the UK’s legally binding carbon budgets, let alone the historic goal of net zero.
And yet such blunt criticism seems misguided and counterproductive. The Net Zero Strategy contains two tremendous strengths that deserve to be celebrated.
First, it is a remarkable achievement that speaks to the staggering pace at which the concept of a net zero-emissions economy has grown from an environmentalist pipe dream to the defining political, economic and technological trend of the century. If you had told the diplomats and journalists gathered at the Paris Summit in 2015 that in six years the deliberately vague goal of the Paris Agreement to balance anthropogenic emissions in the second half of the century would have turned into a near universal acceptance of the need to build a net zero emissions economy by 2050, they would have found it hard to believe you. If you had told them that two-thirds of the global economy, including the US, China, and the EU, had net zero targets in place, they would have asked you what you were smoking.
And now, one of the world’s major industrialized economies – the melting pot of the first industrial revolution – has a detailed plan to completely decarbonize within 30 years. It is a flawed and incomplete plan, but it is a plan. On the eve of COP26, it provides a practical model from which the rest of the world can learn.
Second, the plan contains both internal logic and a clear opportunity to strengthen it over time. It is a strategy elaborated in the electoral image of Boris Johnson, impulsively optimistic, disturbing in details, but often underestimated.
The vision is simple: to catalyze exciting new clean technologies and help them reduce costs; then let the market, engineers and contractors do the heavy lifting; in the meantime, talk about the opportunities and benefits and do nothing to scare the horses away. It is a vaguely populist center-right plan of a vaguely populist center-right government, produced within limits imposed by a fiscally conservative conservative chancellor.
There are considerable risks here. It is a strategy that outsources much of the responsibility to the business community – a business community that the government continues to insult and which is currently more than a little concerned about Brexit-related disruptions and soaring energy prices. It is legitimate to question whether the plan as it stands can transition at the scale and pace required, especially given its reluctance to tackle some of the fundamental market failures at the heart of the saving fossil fuels. It is also unclear whether this strategy could survive contact with a Prime Minister Truss or Sunak.
But at the same time, this is an overall positive plan for the UK’s green business community and the growing number of organizations engaged net zero.
It provides a clear signal to the market on the direction of decarbonizing travel and clearly indicates where the great economic opportunities lie over the next decade. The plan announced by the Treasury yesterday to make net zero plans mandatory for large companies and investors is an equally huge and under-stated step forward that will serve to anchor the net zero transition in every corner of the economy. Taken alongside the overall strategy, it confirms that there is no alternative.
Even the Treasury’s dreaded review of net zero costs fails to deflect plans from number 10, instead concluding that the transition promises to deliver net economic benefits on several fronts.
Moreover, the specific policies announced yesterday may not correspond to the overall strategy that some were hoping for, but they are nothing either. New targets for phasing out boilers and sourcing sustainable aviation fuels, new mechanisms to boost investment in nuclear and hydrogen, additional EV infrastructure and funding for R&D – all of these measures will help mobilize even more private investment in the net zero transition well beyond the welcome £ 10bn announced yesterday by Bill Gates et al.
The reaction to yesterday’s Net Zero strategy has ranged from anger and condemnation to joy and Panglossian – which is probably to be expected given the scale of what’s on offer and the existential nature of what’s at stake. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between the two extremes. More government funding would certainly help and the gaps in the strategy need to be addressed quickly, but progress is being made.
The glass is not yet half full. We will only reach this stage when global emissions decline steadily and rapidly. But the glass is filling up. On the eve of COP26, things are moving. We have a plan.