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18 November 2020

Boris Johnson’s ten-point green plan falls far short of what is needed

The UK will still miss its 2050 net-zero emissions target under the government’s new climate programme. 

By Stephen Bush

Boris Johnson has unveiled a ten-point plan for the United Kingdom’s “green industrial revolution” designed to do two things: create green jobs and meet the UK’s 2050 net-zero emissions target. Around £4bn of additional government spending is planned on top of the £8bn already announced. What are the biggest announcements and do they go far enough?

The ban on selling new petrol and diesel cars has been brought forward from 2035 to 2030 – an important step given that the Climate Change Committee, the independent watchdog that advises the government on its climate targets, has said that 2032 is the latest that switchover needs to happen to meet the UK’s net-zero target.

Of course, switching to electric vehicles is only part of the necessary transition. The spread of attractive public transport options and of easy cycling and walking options is just as important, if not more so, because emissions are created in the manufacture of cars, whatever they are powered by. 

There is a major planned increase in the size of the UK’s offshore wind, a positive step and one that reinforces the biggest success of British environmental policy: the movement away from coal and towards clean energy. But while there is some extra funding for pilot hydrogen schemes and research for small nuclear reactors, the much-trailed commitment to new nuclear power stations is nowhere to be seen. This is particularly urgent because the UK’s 1980s-era plants are ageing, and while new technology may at some point mean that we can do without nuclear power, in 2020 it remains an essential part of a low-emission energy mix. 

The biggest British shortcoming over the past decade has been inaction on homes and insulation. Johnson’s ten-point plan does include a target to install 600,000 heat pumps a year in British homes by 2028: but that is scarcely more than a third of the 1.5 million a year the Climate Change Committee says that the UK needs by 2030. 

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[See also: India Bourke on Boris Johnson’s climate change legacy]

While the plans are positive, they don’t represent the level of ambition required to meet the 2050 target. The biggest absence of all, however, is not in anything the UK does, but in its overseas efforts.

Part of why it is important for the UK to continue to reduce its emissions is because it boosts and enhances our climate diplomacy. Our own record on coal has been an asset in helping the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary, Alok Sharma, persuade several countries to commit to their own net-zero targets in advance of the UK’s hosting of COP26 in November 2021. 

But another factor in reducing global emissions is helping countries in the Global South climb the value chain without becoming major polluters – which is one reason we should hope that Dominic Raab wins his battle with Rishi Sunak over the size of the UK’s foreign aid budget. 

That speaks to the bigger problem with Johnson’s ten-point plan. It is long on important but popular measures, such as the switch to snazzy electric cars and investment in job-creating research projects. It has less to say on unpopular measures such as new nuclear power stations – not abstract research projects, but real and tangible plants – or using British cash to make sure that the Global South is also part of the clean energy revolution. 

As we have seen across England, where councils led by all parties are facing resistance over the introduction of new traffic-reduction methods, the climate revolution requires leaders who are willing to risk unpopularity. It’s not yet proven that Johnson has the required nerve to show serious and unpopular climate leadership, whether in backing tried-and-tested clean energy at home or international development abroad.

[See also: Ellen Peirson-Hagger on whether smartphones can ever be “sustainable”]