Get Net Zero done

James Murray
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 Get Net Zero done

With both Brexit and the net zero transition, the government has a clear goal and no clarity on how it intends to deliver

The parallels between the Brexit debate and the climate debate are much-discussed and pretty obvious. There's the intensity of the culture war, the populist rejection of complexity and expertise, and the differing appetites for risk. But the past few days at the Conservative Party Conference has revealed another important similarity between the two narratives that look set to shape the UK economy for decades to come. 

The conference has been dominated (allegations of impropriety aside) by the Tories' focus group tested and cynically reductive slogan 'Get Brexit Done'. Every speech, every interview, every Facebook-targeted ad promises to 'get Brexit done' and yet no one has been able to answer the most obvious and direct of one-word questions: How?

Meanwhile, on the under card of the conference has been all the things the government wishes to get done once it has got Brexit done (most of which it could have done while remaining a member of the EU, but that's a debate for another day). There's been money for the NHS and policing, yet another drive on school standards, and in a perhaps surprisingly central role the construction of a net zero emission economy.

Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom declared it "our first priority". Chancellor Sajid Javid said it was one of the guiding principles for all Treasury infrastructure spending decisions. Theresa Villiers said it was a critical component of the government's post-Brexit vision. And Grant Shapps argued it was at the very heart of modern conservatism.

These are hugely encouraging developments, especially when you consider the pressure from some other parts of the Party for a watering down of environmental ambition. Moreover, the rhetoric was backed some similarly encouraging policy pledges: stronger building standards, more money for nuclear R&D and the EV supply chain, a review of the unambitious 2040 date for ending the sale of conventional cars, more support for buses, including the UK's first electric bus city.

There are also good reasons for green businesses and campaigners to welcome the continuing political consensus around the net zero target and the policy arms race that is currently underway with Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Tories all trying to present the most compelling proposition for how to deliver on the economy-shaping goal.

But if the unofficial mantra is to 'Get Net Zero Done' then it invites the same question as the Brexit tagline: How?

Shapps had a go at answering it with a paean to "stronger environmental protection, new technology and the market", but it hardly amounts to a bankable policy position.

The harsh truth is that for all the government's impressive decarbonisation track record - and it has been impressive - there are still massive holes in the current policy framework that is seriously undermining investment and leaving the UK well short of the required decarbonisation trajectory.

This week provided an opportunity for some further clarity on Ministers' plans for tackling emissions from buildings, heat, industry, aviation, agriculture, and so on. Some much needed certainty on post-Brexit trade and governance would also have been appreciated by businesses, investors, and farmers everywhere, while climate diplomats around the world would have loved to have seen a bit more detail on the vision for COP26 in Glasgow.

Instead the offer has been a piecemeal and somewhat under-powered package of policies, all of which has been undermined by yet more funding for road-building and a blatant reluctance to have a serious conversation about the hugely difficult challenges ahead that will flow from the necessary collapse in demand for fossil fuels. That and a worryingly juvenile performance from the Prime Minister suggesting he wanted to keep Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon away from COP26 and would like to see any Saltires flying at the Glasgow conference centre outnumbered by Union Jacks.

Inevitably, the opposition parties face similar questions about the effectiveness and feasibility of their net zero plans, especially if Labour does move forward with its members' immensely ambitious goal to fully decarbonise by 2030. But they have not been in government for the entirety of the past nine years, they do not enjoy a sizeable poll lead, they have not taken the country to the brink of its worst constitutional, economic, and diplomatic crisis in many generations, and they don't have the current responsibility to lead the delivery of the UK's legally binding climate targets. 

That responsibility falls to the government and for all the promise of new policies and a revamped Clean Growth Strategy there is insufficient evidence that Ministers have fully internalised the scale of what they have signed up to. There is 14 months to COP26 and 30 years to mid-century. Every four months that passes is one per cent of the available time to build a net zero emission economy. The necessary urgency seems to be lacking.

It is fantastic to hear that climate action is one of the government's top priorities, but that needs to be translated into tough policy choices and serious funding that extends beyond the glamorous and popular elements of the net zero transition. Just like Brexit, critical decisions can not be ducked indefinitely in the hope they will go away, while an appetite for creative destruction comes loaded with more risks than any government would want to unleash. And just as with Brexit, a government that wants to deliver a "decade of renewal" needs to properly explain how.

A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing email, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.

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