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5 March 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:37pm

Britain needs a Marshall Plan for the environment

We need to rebuild our economies to be cleaner, cheaper, greener, more circular and completely zero carbon.

By Alex Sobel

After the Second World War, Europe faced the huge task of rebuilding a broken continent. The US supported Western Europe with a programme to rebuild their shattered nations. The largest recipient was the UK with 26 per cent of the aid, followed by France and West Germany.

In the UK, the Labour government of Clement Attlee utilised the Marshall Plan to sustain full employment through a huge programme of council house building, constructing new schools and hospitals and rebuilding the industrial sector. West Germany focused on non-military re-industrialisation, which continues to pay dividends to the German people.

Today we face the need for a rebuilding of Europe, not because of war but due to a future crisis: the crisis of climate change which requires the most carbon hungry nations to wean themselves off of their fossil fuel habit. This requires a new plan and outlook. It requires a Marshall Plan for the environment.

We need to rebuild our economies to be cleaner, cheaper, greener, more circular and completely zero carbon. This involves creating hundreds of thousands of green jobs in the UK. The Marshall Plan looked to the US for financial aid, this time we need to look to the US not for finance but for ideas: the Green New Deal.

The world of 2030 needs to look radically different to today with the economy re-considered from top to bottom. Petrol stations will be far fewer in number and predominantly have hydrogen pumps. Our streets instead will need parking bays with electric charge points.

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New housing estates will be built with a modular design in huge factories from airtight and energy efficient timber frame with heat recovery and triple glazing so no central heating is needed.

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Not just what is built, but how we build it will change. Green steel will come from electric arc furnaces powered completely by renewable electricity. That energy will come from new range of energy solutions – wind, solar, tidal and hydrogen all sat alongside mass battery storage.

We will need to harness the internet and have open and smart data on all aspects of our society from our air quality readings to the amount of plastic in the clothes that we buy.

Alongside infrastructure and technological changes the plan cannot neglect the natural world – global planetary health is vital to survival. Solutions to ocean acidification through plastic and waste regulations need serious research and development backed by a Marshall Plan for the environment. Biodiversity net gain needs to be a global principle with a programme to reverse deforestation, insect loss and subsidies based on these principles for farmers.

The National Farmers Union has already agreed to go zero carbon but a plan is needed to help electrify farm equipment, reduce fertiliser use and transform how we use water alongside designed crop resistance.

Delivering such fundamental change will require a repurposing of our education system, especially in vocational studies to teach the skills needed to meet the challenge.

This programme of rapid de-carbonisation will help us become a leader in zero-carbon tech with the same sort of integrated supply chains we have seen in automotive and aviation industries, making the UK a market leader and creating export opportunities.

This race to top transcends the interests of any single government or nation state. We have more carbon in our atmosphere today than ever seen before in our history. NASA’s latest estimates show the planet has more greenhouse gas than the historic high around 325,000BC. That’s before humans first left Africa.

Only now is the magnitude of our impact on the plant dawning. We need to do a better job of measuring change.

This isn’t a zero-sum game. People can gain if we change structures in society and move from traditional growth indicators such as GDP to alternatives. The New Economics Foundation propose a national indicator of lifestyle-related carbon emissions, relative to an allocation calculated from global targets for avoiding dangerous levels of climate change. Having this sort of goal would reset priorities and could sit alongside indicators around wellbeing, health and inequality.

Systems of governance would also have to change and the underlying data in both public and private spheres would need to be opened up so that a true measure of a nation’s performance could be calculated.

We cannot do this alone and the EU is an almost unique forum for nations to drive a plan like this. The EU has as a bloc helped drive the COP process and was at the centre of the Paris Agreement. The UK cannot with modern integrated supply chains and transnational finance crack this alone. A Marshall Plan for the environment across Europe is a catalyst for change globally.

Finally to keep government and corporate interests honest, movement building needs to take place. Exponents of Big Organising such as Zack Exley showed what could be possible in the Bernie Sanders campaign. Our environmental campaigning needs to move from protest to a movement which in Zack words is “a powerful, tech-enabled, people-powered model that is infinitely scaleable and poses a present threat to the status quo”.

If we don’t manage this societal transformation to reduce emissions and reverse deforestation we are doomed to shoot past 2 degrees of warming and confine ourselves to a future of decline. All the elements for a Marshall Plan for the environment exist: together we must find the will to deliver them.

Alex Sobel is Labour MP for Leeds North West.