No Prime Minister has ever been quite so explicit in their backing for the clean technologies that will drive this green revolution - this matters enormously
One of the common complaints levelled at governments of all stripes is that they fixate on the short term at the expense of longer term concerns. It is an understandable trait given electoral cycles and citizens' most pressing demands, but it inevitably means big, complex, decadal challenges such as climate change are often kicked down the proverbial road.
There is one exception to this political rule. When the short term looks so bleak and unpredictable that political leaders suddenly lift their eyes to the horizon and focus on the long term missions they can hope to control.
And so it came to pass that Boris Johnson's big set piece speech at this year's Conservative Party Conference had little to say about shambolic covid data handling, looming lockdowns, worsening polling numbers, and escalating job losses during what could well turn into a winter of feverish discontent. But it did have quite a bit to say about his vision for the UK in 2030.
This is a tricky sleight of hand to pull off. As the political journalist Gaby Hinsliff observed on Twitter: "I don't want to have a picnic in a 'wild belt' in 2030, I want a test & trace system that works now".
And yet, while such criticism remains valid it is important to note that all those previous critiques lambasting governments for not thinking enough about the long term were also on to something.
Yes, cynics will note that the Conservative Party has promised to 'go green' plenty of times in the past with mixed results. But this time does feel difference.
This speech was a direct repudiation of those Tories who in the past have argued against renewable power and the need for climate action. Intentionally or not the PM even referenced his own scepticism that wind turbines would ever be able to blow the skin off a rice pudding. He offered an unequivocal message that the net zero transition is the guiding light for his long term economic and industrial policy. No Prime Minister has ever been quite so explicit in their backing for the clean technologies that will drive this green revolution. This matters enormously.
He also put the net zero mission in its proper historic context. He was right to say societies often respond to disasters with a new settlement as they seek to tackle the risks that drove them to the brink. The net zero transition can and should be the animating project that is built out of the coronavirus crisis. There are good reasons why governments from China to California and Brussels to Seoul have reached precisely this conclusion.
Plenty of questions remain, especially around precisely how the government's 10 point green recovery plan will entail. Are Ministers really willing to face down media outrage when it dawns on people they have likely already bought their penultimate internal combustion engine car? Can a credible just transition strategy really be delivered for industrial communities that are already being hit hard by covid and potentially Brexit? Does Rishi 'we need to balance the books' Sunak fully understand that if the UK wants to be seen as a climate leader it needs to at least match Germany's €40bn green stimulus?
Those are questions for this autumn as the government fleshes out its long awaited plans. But the good news is that the message from the top is clear. Johnson's long term vision could yet implode under the pressure created by the failure to deliver that functioning track and trace system. But if the short term storms can be navigated then it really does look as if a gale force green recovery could yet power the next phase of the UK's island story.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.
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