Now get Net Zero Done

James S Murray
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Now get Net Zero Done

Was it really 'a bad night for the climate'?

In the wake of last night's exit poll, Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley found himself in the position Boris Johnson studiously avoided: on the BBC being quizzed by Andrew Neil. Asked for his reflections on the shock results, Bartley spoke for millions of distraught progressives as he declared it "a bad night for the climate".

But loath as I am to disagree with Bartley, who along with his Green colleagues emerges as one of the few political figures to leave the past month or so with his reputation enhanced, it is far too early to tell if it was a bad night for the climate. In fact, it could yet end up being a very good night for the climate.

The facts are these. The UK has just elected a government that is unequivocally committed to building a net zero emission economy within 30 years. It has pledged to significantly increase funding and enhance policies in support of clean tech R&D, a net zero industrial CCS cluster, 40GW of offshore wind capacity, tree-planting, greener aviation, domestic energy efficiency for fuel poor households, commercial energy efficiency, electric vehicle infrastructure, advanced nuclear programmes, green aviation research, and a whole lot more besides. It has promised to ensure that "in all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards". It has a new Energy White Paper in the pipeline that centres on mobilising low carbon energy investment and efficiency upgrades, alongside an Environment Bill that promises a raft of new green targets and governance measures and an Agriculture Bill that could reshape the very look and feel of the UK in pursuit of enhanced environmental services. It is set to co-host what could prove to be the biggest global climate summit in history and the Prime Minister has said he will chair a new Cabinet-level committee to ensure we get net zero done.

Boris Johnson may have run scared of Neil, but he loves the podium spotlight and in his victory speech this morning he was completely clear about his commitment to the environmental agenda, pledging "to make this country the cleanest, greenest on earth, with the most far-reaching environmental programme". "You the people of this country voted to be carbon neutral by 2050," he added, "and we will do it." 

Yes, it is the kind of thing new Prime Ministers say, but Johnson now has the mandate, the authority, and, crucially, the votes to deliver on this epoch-shaping promise. There was a logical school of thought even among some Remain-favouring voters that if it was to be a Conservative majority then better a large one. Johnson's position is now impregnable. There are no excuses for not delivering on every part of his manifesto and no one else to blame if he fails to "make a success" of Brexit. He will not be beholden to the ERG's calls for the government to ditch any trade deal with the EU and deregulate everything in pursuit of a US trade deal instead. If his efforts to deliver the promised net zero UK falter then it will become obvious - to business leaders and investors, to increasingly vocal young people, to the former Labour voters he has "borrowed", and to the growing band of green-minded Conservatives, including, of course, his girlfriend.

The net result is that many green businesses will be cautiously optimistic as they welcome the new government. Yes, Brexit still looms and could yet result in trade barriers and undermined competitiveness. But there is also finally the prospect of a degree of stability and clarity, of a government that can get on and do things. Moreover, one of those core things will be advancing the net zero transition. Commercial prospects and an improved investment climate should result.

All of the above is demonstrably true. And yet a failure to acknowledge that Bartley has legitimate cause for concern would amount to a level of gas-lighting rarely seen outside a CCHQ Twitter account.

One of the key takeaways from the campaign is that Johnson's relationship with the truth is as questionable as his relationship with American businesswomen and Russian oligarchs. It is hard to see him ditching the net zero agenda outright, but it is conceivable that he could respond to largely unfounded or exaggerated fears over the cost of the transition to tack towards a slower pace of decarbonisation. Equally, a stonking majority may give him the freedom to secure a decent trade deal with the EU, but it could also encourage him to ask for impossible levels of regulatory divergence and then play the nativist populism card against perfidious Brussels as he urges the country to knuckle under for a no deal exit and a low standards US trade deal.

In addition, many green-minded voters will feel, with considerable justification, that the failure of the Remain-supporting parties to co-operate has resulted in a huge missed opportunity. All of the main opposition parties were promising a faster pace of decarbonisation and a higher level of much-needed investment than the Tories are proposing. Together they secured 52 per cent of the vote and yet short-sighted tribalism and 20th century agitprop socialism means they can now polish their Green New Deal plans on the opposition benches.

The fear is that Johnson may have secured a mandate for a raft of new green initiatives, but he has also secured a mandate for inaction in the many crucial green areas where the Conservative manifesto was silent. It said little or nothing on cost-competitive onshore renewables, domestic energy efficiency upgrades for the vast majority of homes and offices, waste, recycling and the circular economy, green heat, public transport, rail electrification, EV incentives, green corporate governance, and whole heap more besides. Areas that are critical to the UK's long term decarbonisation targets were glossed over or ignored, just as Johnson omitted the environment from his list of priorities for his first 100 days. Those 100 days amount to around one per cent of the available time to deliver on the 2050 net zero target. The five-year parliament represents over 16 per cent of the available time. The UK cannot afford five years of negligible progress in areas in which the Conservative manifesto has nothing to say.

Thankfully, wriggle room in the manifesto, the upcoming energy white paper, the wave of post-Brexit legislation, and the urgent need to deliver a successful COP26 summit in Glasgow in just 11 months' time provide an opportunity to plug these gaps. The question is whether Johnson and his new administration will seize this chance, especially when he is bound to face calls from some of his colleagues, including some of his own Cabinet, for an alternative approach centred on low taxes, even less regulation, and a side-lining of environmental concerns.

As such the case for the net zero transition and the green economy will have to be continued to be made long and loud. The green business community needs to continue to showcase its innovative, technology-embracing, life-affirming brilliance. Just as it must do everything in its power to advance the government's net zero mission and hold Ministers to account if they show the slightest sign of backsliding on their commitments. There is far too much at stake for yesterday to turn into a bad night for the climate. It needs to be the precise opposite.

A word on Labour. During the campaign some of Corbyn's outriders took to arguing that the election represented the last chance to save the climate and the planet. Luckily they were wrong then, just as they are wrong now. However, this End Times assessment does beg the question, if the future of life on Earth was on the line why did you go to the country with a candidate so hugely unpopular and self-evidently out of his depth? The chance of a full blown Green New Deal that could have turbocharged the UK's decarbonisation efforts and laid the foundations for a cleaner, healthier economy that delivers net zero well before 2050 has been completely squandered for at least five years because of tactical incompetence, blinkered tribalism, and an ideological obsession with 1970s-style nationalisations.

The entire campaign has shown our democracy to be in pretty bad shape. The social media mendacity beloved of CCHQ will now continue unabated, the partisan viciousness was utterly debilitating, and now leaders know there is no real electoral penalty for ducking basic levels of scrutiny and sending out a fridge door or an ice sculpture to face the media.

But for me, one of the most depressing vignettes of the whole campaign came during one of the interminable leaders' debates when a young person basically pleaded with the panel to take a more collaborative approach to tackling big issues like the climate crisis. Faced with this heartfelt call for unity in the national interest Labour's Richard Burgon's instinctive response was essentially 'no, I'm not going to work with a Tory, even if it means the planet burns'.  It was unthinking tribalism at its absolute worst and further evidence that too much of our political class still fails to understand what the historic effort to avert climate disaster actually requires.

The hope now is that all Parties and their supporters recognise that if we are to get net zero done, then we really are all in it together.

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