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3 December 2020updated 16 Sep 2021 4:49pm

An industrial strategy for the environment

In combatting global warming, the UK must lead by example.

The UK is facing a number of significant challenges at present – the ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic, redefining its place in the world post-Brexit, and perhaps the most significant challenge of our lifetime: tackling climate change. It would be a mistake to look at these as separate, distinct priorities, when there are in fact commonalities that offer us the chance to respond to all three at once.

The phrase “Build Back Better” has been coined not just by the CBI, but prime minister Boris Johnson, and the US president-elect, Joe Biden. This need for recovery and renewal comes at a time when a range of technology solutions are giving us the tools we need to re-shape our economies and societies for the better. The challenge for us all is whether we can maximise the opportunities at hand and pivot to a sustainable future.

Since the start of 2020 we have seen fundamental shifts in work patterns, travel, and the level of government intervention in our lives. Lockdowns have given some people the opportunity to reconnect with nature, and make us think harder about the relationship we have with the natural world.

Meanwhile, the very clear impacts of climate change have continued to be felt, with record numbers of hurricanes and wildfires setting all too familiar headlines in recent months. All this emphasises the importance of the UK’s net zero emissions target, set last year, and the hugely important COP26 climate conference, that we will host in Glasgow in 2021.

Read more: The government’s deforestation law may not be enough

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As we continue to battle against the coronavirus pandemic, a major concern is that the health crisis could lead to a jobs crisis. So we have asked whether accelerating the action needed to achieve our net zero target, such as building wind farms, or retrofitting homes to be more energy efficient, can help tackle falling employment. We believe the answer is yes. The CBI’s Green Recovery Roadmap, published in September, highlighted some of the priorities. Much has been made of progress in decarbonising the electricity sector, but far more renewable and nuclear output must be built, alongside developing a more flexible energy system to support increase in renewable power generation.

The 40-gigawatt target for offshore wind capacity will support up to 60,000 jobs, while 25,000 construction jobs would be created from building the proposed Sizewell C nuclear power station. Developing a programme of small modular reactors could lead to employment of 40,000 people by 2040.

We have also highlighted development of Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS) technology and a hydrogen economy as priorities for government action through financial support where needed, and the creation of business models and clear policy frameworks. These technologies could help support the government’s “levelling up” agenda, creating up to 6,000 new highly skilled jobs in industrial clusters planned for Teesside, Humberside, Merseyside and Aberdeenshire.  

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With transport now the largest source of emissions in the UK, and a new 2030 date for ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, this decade must deliver progress. Building out our electric vehicle infrastructure must be prioritised, if we are to deliver the ramp up in low-emissions vehicle sales needed. Other transport technologies, like the first hydrogen-powered train trials on the UK’s mainline rail network undertaken recently, must also be progressed.

Read more: Why the government needs to drive the electric vehicle dream

Addressing the carbon in our heating is arguably the largest challenge for reaching net zero. With 24 million domestic boilers burning methane, we need new solutions for heating our homes. The joint CBI and University of Birmingham Heat Policy Commission, which I chair, has made a number of recommendations this year about how the UK can start to make some long overdue progress.

These include a target date to start installing hydrogen-ready boilers in peoples’ homes, providing long-term financial incentives to help people pay for energy efficiency measures and heat pumps, and create a National Delivery Body to help plan and deliver this major infrastructure challenge.

The employment opportunities here are huge. An energy efficiency programme alone could support over 150,000 jobs by 2030, and the Green Homes Grant introduced this summer, will play an important role in delivering this.

We have welcomed the prime minister’s “10 Point Plan” to deliver a green industrial revolution. While more action is undoubtedly needed to get us to net zero, this is an important step for the delivery of green jobs in the wake of the pandemic, giving
business clear targets to work towards, and delivering on many of the priorities the CBI and its members called for earlier this year.

Read more: How to pay for a Green New Deal

The plan also demonstrates the UK’s continuing international leadership on climate change. The UK’s hosting of the G7 and COP26 next year is a unique opportunity for the country to shape the international response to the climate crisis. Recent net zero commitments from China, Japan and South Korea, and the election of Joe Biden, who has committed to bringing the US back into the Paris Agreement, show that we are at a crucial for moment coordinating global action. The UK can help shape this next year through our diplomatic leadership at these events, as well as through the new trading arrangements around the world.  

As we continue to battle against the coronavirus pandemic, and make breakthroughs in areas such as mass testing and vaccine development, we must not lose sight of the opportunity to deliver an economic recovery that creates green jobs, moves us closer to
our net zero target, and establishes the UK as a global leader in climate diplomacy as we open a new and exciting chapter for our country.

Karan Bilimoria is president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). 

This article originally appeared in a Spotlight report on energy and climate change. Click here for the full edition.