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How to deliver on the Green New Deal

Serious investment is needed to get the UK to net zero, but the government's strategy has so far been lacking.

By Dr Alan Whitehead MP

We’re way past the point on the road to net zero where the government can get away with bold-sounding targets and generalised emission-cutting commitments: the next decade must be one of precise action to put in place the measures, infrastructure, support and delivery that ensures the green, low-carbon economy really will deliver on net zero.

This means making decisions right now, not only about what the headline measures should be, but about how the infrastructure of our country will deliver this in the shortest time possible. It will need real investment. While the government prevaricates, Labour has seized the nettle with a bold Climate Investment Pledge – an additional £28bn annually to 2030 to power the transition. This will build an economy that provides large numbers of secure new jobs and a just transition of skills and employment from the old high-carbon industries to the low-carbon industries of the future.

Over the next decade we need to see the rapid decarbonisation of our energy systems, including both electricity and heating, using renewables, heat pumps, hydrogen and district heating. Transport systems, too, will have to be decarbonised with greener alternatives, mostly electrical vehicles, but also with a role for hydrogen in heavy goods transport and in rail where necessary. Our energy-intensive industries will continue to produce the essentials of our economy such as steel, chemicals, cement and ceramics but in greener ways, including establishing comprehensive carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities alongside production. Labour has a plan to help energy-intensive industries like steel to decarbonise, safeguarding and creating jobs by leading on these issues. In contrast, the government is leaving individuals, manufacturing communities and industries to shoulder the costs on their own.

All of these pillars of the low-carbon economy need new forms of infrastructural support if they are going to work, and much of this is currently lacking.

Installing heat pumps will only work if homes are energy-efficient so they can do their job. Yet at present we have some of the worst-insulated homes in Europe. Labour has pledged a national mission to insulate 19 million homes in this decisive decade. This upgrading will allow low-carbon heat to work, and will keep domestic heating affordable.

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To decarbonise transport we need a public transport revolution, with high-quality and affordable rail and bus networks in every city, town and village. Establishing electric vehicles as replacements for the internal combustion engine will fail unless networks of charging points and the supply of high-voltage power are in place as the roll-out progresses. Ministers are failing to deliver this infrastructure, particularly outside of London.

The UK has committed now to 40 gigawatts of offshore wind to be installed by 2030, and probably a further 30 gigawatts in the decade following. But if the government does not ensure we have the grid infrastructure both on and offshore that can distribute this electricity it simply won’t happen. 

The government will need to reconfigure our energy management to work in an intelligent way, led by smart grid management and metering systems. Smart meters are, in reality, not about seeing what energy your kettle is consuming when you boil it (although that is useful for consumers too), but about having a data point in every home, office and industrial site to allow for modern, efficient system management. This will allow our energy network to always work at an optimum level, reducing waste, improving distribution, and making best use of low-carbon supply. We need national coverage of smart meters in every home and business to enable the intelligent energy system of the future that can distribute effectively and automatically across a modern, decentralised network.

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The market alone will not provide the green infrastructure needed to make the headline targets work. Ministers’ reluctance to commit to meaningful green infrastructure investment exacerbates the problem. The recently published heat and buildings strategy talks up heat pumps but is silent on energy-efficiency upgrade plans for domestic and commercial settings. The government has committed to some serious funding for CCS through two big industrial clusters in the north-east and north-west, but heavy industry doesn’t just work out of those two regions, and much more will need to be done to establish national CCS networks.

The work on green infrastructure needs to be done largely by public-private partnerships where government holds the ring. There is opportunity for industry in the transition, and Labour’s plans to buy, make and sell more in Britain would also help British business to power ahead in the global race for green. Our Climate Investment Pledge will bring forward support to retrofit homes across the country to high and permanent levels of energy efficiency; will complete a national network of electric vehicle charging facilities; will invest in the upgrading and smartening of our grid and distribution systems; will establish solid production facilities for green hydrogen; and will equip us with the plant, the transportation and sequestration networks that will make CCS a reality.

We cannot afford to slip on this task – the net-zero imperative depends on us getting it right, and fast.

Alan Whitehead is shadow minister for energy and the Green New Deal