Net zero: Boris Johnson urged to go ‘further and faster’ after publication of ‘over-cautious’ climate plan

Labour claim plans ‘torpedoed’ by Rishi Sunak, as Treasury warns of need to replace £37bn of fuel taxes

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 19 October 2021 19:57 BST
Boris Johnson calls for billions of investment into green technologies

Boris Johnson is being urged to go “further and faster” on climate change, after the publication of the government’s long-awaited strategy for reaching net-zero emissions fell short of environmentalist hopes for a step-change in curbing greenhouse gases.

While proposals to replace polluting gas boilers, support the switch to electric cars and plant millions of trees were welcomed, campaigners warned the package was over-cautious, with one expert saying it was more in tune with limiting global warming to 2.5-3C, rather than the 1.5C maximum which is the goal of next month’s crucial UN Cop26 summit in Glasgow.

Labour said the plans had been “torpedoed” by chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose Treasury released a report on the cost of net zero which warned that the transition from fossil fuels will require new sources of taxation to replace the £37bn lost from petrol taxes and could curb household disposable incomes.

While recognising that the costs of global inaction “significantly outweigh” the costs of action, the Treasury warned that much of the planned investment in green technology will do little to boost productivity or growth, implying a “structural rebalancing” over the long term towards lower household consumption.

And it said government will have to intervene to ensure the transition is fair to low-income households, pointing out that £620m investment in electric vehicle grants and on-street charging points risked “disproportionately” benefiting the Tesla-driving wealthy at the cost of poorer drivers behind the wheel of petrol-powered bangers.

In an indication of uncertainty in government about the economic benefits of a shift to greener activities, Mr Johnson told an investment conference in London that spending on electric vehicles and battery gigafactories represented “big bets” on the part of the UK.

But he insisted that hitting his legally mandated target of 78 per cent carbon reductions by 2035 and net zero by 2050 need not mean downgrading living standards in the UK.

“This strategy shows how we can build back greener without so much as a hair shirt in sight,” wrote the PM in a foreword to the net-zero strategy.

“In 2050, we will still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes, but our cars will be electric gliding silently around our cities, our planes will be zero emission allowing us to fly guilt-free, and our homes will be heated by cheap reliable power drawn from the winds of the North Sea.”

Key policies unveiled in parliament by business minister Greg Hands included:

• All electricity to be powered by clean sources by 2035, “subject to security of supply”, with massive expansion for offshore wind and solar energy – including 1GW of floating offshore wind turbines

• Go-ahead for at least one large nuclear power plant – and possibly two – by 2024, with funding for research into smaller reactors in locations such as Wylfa in north Wales

• New “clusters” of hydrogen and carbon capture technology in Teesside and the Humber, Merseyside and north Wales

• An “ambition to end sales of new gas boilers by 2035, with £450m to provide £5,000 grants for 90,000 households to switch to heat pumps

• An “aim” to make the UK a world-leader in zero-emission flight

• A mandate to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and ensure all cars on the road are “zero-emissions capable” by 2035

• Restoration of around 280,000 hectares of peat by 2050 and trebling of woodland creation rates in England

• Targets for mortgage providers to improve the energy efficiency of properties on which they have provided loans, potentially forcing homeowners to install insulation and other carbon-saving measures in order to secure lending.

Ministers said that £26bn of government investment in a “green industrial revolution” will support 190,000 jobs by 2025, and 440,000 by 2030, while leveraging up to £90bn of private investment by 2030.

And Mr Johnson made clear he was relying on the private sector to respond on a huge scale, telling the investment conference: “I can deploy billions… but you can deploy trillions.”

Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband said the government plans amounted to only a “tiny fraction” of the £28bn-a-year pledge offered by Labour.

“This is a plan torpedoed by the Treasury,” said Mr Miliband. “Once again, it has failed to recognise that the prudent, responsible choice is to sufficiently invest in a green transition.

“Homeowners are left to face the costs of insulation on their own, industries like steel and hydrogen are left hobbled in the global race without the support they need, and the government cannot even confirm they will meet their climate target for 2035.

“This does not meet our ambitions for British industries to thrive, prosper and lead the world or show the government leadership required to tackle climate breakdown and bring the benefits of a green transition to Britain.”

The CBI welcomed the plan, but said there were “still some pieces of the puzzle missing”, with an urgent need for clarity on incentives to make homes energy efficient and plans to encourage investment in carbon capture and hydrogen projects.

Chief policy director Matthew Fell said: “To truly transform the UK economy based on sustainable and green growth, we need to push further and faster and make key decisions on how to finance the transition to net zero. An honest conversation needs to happen here in the UK about how we pay to go green”.

And TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady described the strategy as “a huge let down” which had failed to implement many of the recommendations of the government’s own green jobs taskforce.

“That’s not the way to show global leadership – it’s self-sabotage,” said Ms O’Grady.

“Today’s spending commitments will do little to address the yawning investment gap needed to get British industry ready for net zero.”

Manchester University climate change professor Kevin Anderson said the strategy fell short of the commitments entered into by the UK at the Paris climate summit in 2015, adding: “The UK’s total carbon budget is more in line with 2.5-3C of warming than 1.5-2.”

The document amounted to a “PR machine in full gloss paint mode” at a time when the UK was contemplating investment in the Cambo and Clair South oilfields, investing £27bn in new roads and overseas airport expansions and putting taxpayers’ money into a new liquid natural gas field in Mozambique, said Prof Anderson, adding: “The climate, however, will see through this.”

Greenpeace UK described the strategy as “more like a pick’n’mix than the substantial meal that we need to reach net zero” and warned it would make it easy for other countries to ignore Mr Johnson’s pleas for enhanced climate pledges at Glasgow.

“Extra cash for tree-planting and progress on electric vehicles doesn’t make up for the lack of concrete plans to deliver renewables at scale, extra investment in public transport, or a firm commitment to end new oil and gas licences,” said the group’s head of politics Rebecca Newsom.

However, the LSE’s Lord Stern – who first set out the economic cost of global temperature rises in a 2006 report – said that the strategy “identifies the major steps we have to take to reach net zero”.

“It will need strong investment and innovation across the economy and will require strong leadership across the whole of the government,” warned Lord Stern. “The strategy should generate a new and attractive form of growth, but the investments have to be fostered, and some households – particularly low-income ones – will need some help.”

And the chief executive of the Climate Change Committee, Chris Stark, said the strategy was “a substantial step forward” which would give Mr Johnson a strong basis to cajole other leaders to step up at Glasgow.

But he added: “The critical next step is turning words into deeds.”

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