On the 8th July the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, unveiled the Plan for Jobs, a package of financial support designed to support, protect and create jobs in the midst of the economic turmoil and uncertainty created by the COVID19 pandemic. Many commentators have looked past the immediate crisis and pointed out the opportunity to use the COVID19 relief package to simultaneously target other problems, such as the Climate Crisis and societal inequality, that the current economic system has contributed to creating.
A cursory glance at the spending announced in the ‘Plan for Jobs’ shows that although some effort has been made to support those most at risk of long term unemployment, spending on “green” projects represents only a small fraction of the total spend.
Money made available to “green” projects:
£2 billion in the Green Homes Grant. Spending to make homes more energy efficient will be matched 2 to 1, incentivising people to invest in their homes and creating jobs in that sector.
£1 billion additional funding to the Green Growth Strategy - a public sector decarbonisation scheme designed to halve public sector emissions by 2032
£40 million Green Jobs Challenge fund
£100 million investment in direct air capture technology
£10 million to R&D in electric and sustainable automotive manufacturing
£40 million to sustainability of courts of law
£50 million to decarbonise social housing
Total “green” spending 3.2 billion.
Total ‘Plan for Jobs’ spending - £30 billion.
Total support and funding related to the COVID pandemic - over £300 billion.
Throughout ‘The Plan’ references are made to the importance of supporting the economy and those at risk of unemployment, which are themselves commendable. However, compliance with the 'Paris Agreement' requires an expanded perspective that takes into account the environmental impacts of economic policies.
A Greatly Expanded Green Investment is Required To Make society More Sustainable
The current emissions schedule puts the UK on course to start missing its carbon targets by the 4th carbon budget period from 2023-2028. But even if these targets were met, UK emissions may still be far in excess of those required for compliance with the Paris agreement.
Increasingly, models of UK emissions rely on the implementation of Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) that directly extract carbon from the atmosphere to reach Net Zero on schedule by 2050. However, there is a very real possibility that these technologies will not be able to remove carbon from the atmosphere at the required rate, requiring accelerated reductions in other areas.
Additionally, the current UK emissions schedule part of a global emissions reductions plan that unfairly expects developing nations to make large cuts despite their smaller contribution to historic emissions. This violates the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ (CBDR&RC), central to ethos of both the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. Developing nations should be expected to undertake less dramatic emissions reductions, reflecting their lesser contribution to historical emissions, more pressing developmental needs, and reduced capacity to implement emissions reductions methods. If CBDR&RC is respected the UK will be assigned a smaller carbon budget requiring a stricter schedule of emissions for compliance to be achieved.
Kevin Anderson’s May 2020 paper applies these two factors to models of the UK emissions reductions required for compliance with the Paris Agreement. The results show that taking these factors into account requires the emissions reductions of 11% per year, more than double the 5% yearly reductions currently scheduled. Drastic and disruptive intervention in a timely and efficient manner will deliver sustainability for the UK.
It can not be denied that the government is taking steps towards creating a more sustainable society. There have been very real changes over the last 30 years. But these changes have never been adequate. The Government green agenda focuses on being seen to do something, rather than doing enough. Small tweaks are made that move things in the right direction rather than broad changes that create a sustainable relationship between society and the environment as quickly as possible.
The type of spending plan seen in response to COVID-19 presents an opportunity to seed such changes. The magnitude of the response to COVID-19 has made it clear that the government can and will respond when it perceives a threat to be large and urgent enough. It is essential that as a society we begin to address the climate crisis with this urgency as soon as possible.
It is time for those in power to seriously engage with change on the scale of the green new deal
Decisive action now can accelerate a long overdue upswing in the sustainability of the relationship between society and the environment. High levels of public concern about the climate crisis show its implications to be generally well understood, it is time that those in government recognise this and begin to address the issue with the sincerity that it deserves. Great hope can be found in a recent announcement by US presidential candidate Joe Biden that he will implement environment spending programs (here and here) totaling $7 trillion. This is both an important investment in sustainable infrastructure and also a step towards a future proof job market, essential to long term economic wellbeing of society.
By following a similar approach the UK government can facilitate a strong recovery from the shocks of the COVID19 pandemic as well kickstarting a journey towards compliance with the Paris Agreement and effective mitigation of the climate crisis. Large scale investment is required in: renewable energy, energy efficiency in manufacturing, transport and agriculture, updates to the transport infrastructure to favour public transport and sustainable transport, health care, and education. Targeted investments will allow success with respect to goals in climate, economic well being, and inequality. This will move us beyond an era in which the narrow focus on specific conceptions of societal success has distracted from progress against the joint problems of the climate crisis and inequality, delaying the overall progress of society.
Global attitudes towards the climate crisis are in favour of decisive action being taken. The fruits of a sustainable society may not be low hanging, but they are within reach due to the vast potential of well coordinated government backed society wide action. The time to summon the motivation to climb the ladder and harvest them is now.
By Louder than the Storm Political Lead, MacGregor Cox