It's time to get back to school, and the stage is set for the most consequential autumn in decades
What a strange and disorientating summer it has been. Glorious in parts, dangerously hot in others. A steady march back to something approaching normality, constantly stalked by the very real and justified fear that the bleakest winter awaits. Furlough-funded staycations and meals out offering imperfect insulation against the chill economic wind.
This dichotomy - this mix of tentative optimism that the worst of the coronavirus crisis is behind us set against the fear we may still be in the foothills of a pandemic that could stretch on for years - has been turbo-charged for a green economy well used to tension between utopian and dystopian outlooks.
On the plus side fears that the Covid recession would push climate action down the political and corporate agenda have proved largely unfounded. Politicians the world over have touted their green recovery plans; BP's new net zero strategy may have grabbed the headlines, but it has been accompanied by countless other deep decarbonisation pledges from major corporate players (there were three more just yesterday); the lockdown provided real world evidence that grids can reliably operate with renewables as their backbone, while also providing operators with clear evidence as to where technical challenges remain; a vision of a greener, cleaner, healthier society became visible through the tragedy of the covid miasma.
But this progress has been repeatedly stymied by the failure of the world's biggest emitters to embrace the 'green recovery' rhetoric in any meaningful sense. The modest emissions savings that were recorded as vast swathes of the global economy shut up shop have only served to highlight the epic scale of the decarbonisation challenge.
Even in the UK with a government committed to a green recovery, the messaging has been confused. Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have talked a good game, but beyond the welcome £3bn for energy efficiency upgrades there is still no sign of a coherent green stimulus package on a par with the €40bn programme already finalised by Germany. Reports this week suggest the French government is putting the finishing touches to a €30bn green recovery programme of its own. Meanwhile, back in the UK notorious climate sceptic and international man of mediocrity Tony Abbott is apparently in line for a plum trade job representing Great Britain overseas, as Number 10 uses every opportunity available to turn the dial on the culture war up to 11.
At the same time President Trump looms over everything, a one man guarantee of failure at next year's UN Climate Summit in Glasgow unless the people of Florida and Michigan given him his marching orders this November.
As such this surreal summer sets the scene for one of the highest stakes autumns imaginable.
On the domestic front, the government will have either delivered an historic green recovery package and credible net zero plan by the time winter is out or it never will. All of the critical policy decisions, consultations, whitepapers, and political events are in the pipeline. The Energy White Paper, Green Heat Strategy, Future Homes Standard, CCS and hydrogen plans, internal combustion engine phase out date, net zero clusters, Jet Zero Council, agricultural subsidy reforms, NDC submission - the framework for an overarching strategy is essentially in place, it just needs Ministerial approval and direction. The Autumn Budget and Spending Review then provides a clear opportunity to complement new policy measures with serious investment.
Get it right and not only will the government help spark a green recovery, it will also provide it with a great story to present to the world as it finally gets its preparations for the COP26 Summit on track.
There is no doubt that there are Ministers across government and MPs right across Parliament who want to deliver this progress as a matter of urgency. All the signs are that the key players are on board - witness yesterday's reports suggesting Rishi Sunak is considering ending the fuel duty freeze after a decade.
The big question is whether a government rocked by u-turns and with fast growing questions about its competence can deliver. Can Ministers advance such a significant green policy and spending programme at the same time as delivering a Brexit trade deal or no deal crisis avoidance programme, and managing local lockdowns, rising unemployment, and the terrifying prospect of a winter health crisis? It'll probably flood at some point as well.
If the government wants to re-establish its economic and governance credentials, here is the ultimate test.
The good news is that thousands of top businesses, an overwhelming majority of the public, and many of its political opponents are hoping that it succeeds. In fact pretty much the only people who would like to see the UK's grand net zero experiment fail are unreconstructed polluters, Donald Trump, and the man Boris Johnson apparently wants to appoint as a trade advisor. Like I say, it has been a strange summer.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.
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