Climate change and the green recovery was notably sidelined by Rishi Sunak in a speech that added little to the 'Build Back Better' vision the government touted over the summer
As John Cleese famously observed in the 1986 film Clockwise, "it's not the despair. I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand".
Yesterday, precisely a week after the Prime Minister announced a sweeping 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution and just a day after US President-elect Joe Biden reiterated his unwavering commitment to triggering a new wave of global climate action, Chancellor Rishi Sunak stood up in the House of Commons to deliver his first Spending Review and proceeded to barely mention the climate crisis.
It was a jarring omission.
It is only fair to note that there were some important and encouraging green policy nuggets. Given its stated remit to support the net zero transition, the new National Infrastructure Bank looks like a Green Investment Bank 2.0 in all but name. There was a welcome confirmation of extended funding for electric vehicle infrastructure and grants, including an eye-catching pledge to extend fast charging to every major service station. And Sunak stressed his support for the Prime Minister's 10 Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, as part of his wider promise to deliver a "once in a generation" infrastructure investment blitz.
Meanwhile, key green departments will see their budgets increase, the National Infrastructure Strategy again reiterated that a big wave of new climate policy documents are in the pipeline, and the update to the Treasury's Green Book hinted strongly that new spending decisions would have to consider the government's net zero target more fully than in the past (albeit with some wriggle room).
Moreover, there were some pretty considerable extenuating circumstances. Sunak began with the stark warning the "economic emergency" was only just beginning and did not really let up from there. Worst contraction in GDP in 300 years, scarring to the economy that will be evident for much of the decade, soaring unemployment in the new year, and record peacetime borrowing. It was a bleak outlook and it is understandable that Sunak would focus his attention on short term measures to try and tackle this rolling economic crisis.
And yet none of this is a good enough excuse for a speech and wider spending package that largely fails to engage with the net zero mission or the green stimulus opportunity.
As the government itself has acknowledged, now is precisely the right time to borrow at ultra low interest rates to invest at scale in jobs-creating green infrastructure. But barring the encouraging £4bn green spending injection announced last week and the £5bn of energy efficiency funding from earlier in the autumn, investment at the level many deem is necessary has not been forthcoming.
Over the summer both Sunak and Boris Johnson hymned the potential of a "green recovery" that would allow the UK to "Build Back Better". But neither phrase appeared in Sunak's speech. Given the Conservatives' near superhuman message discipline - "long term economic plan", "get Brexit done" - this does not feel like a coincidence.
The government is committed to the net zero transition, arguably more so than ever before. The pressure on Ministers to deliver on the UK's climate goals from the public, businesses, and the incoming resident of the Oval Office has never been more intense. The pipeline of big green policy decisions will unlock billions of pounds of new investment and create millions of jobs. There are good reasons why the UK this week returned to the top five in the global list of markets that are attractive to clean energy investors.
But politics is about the words you use and the choices you make. And on both fronts today's speech did not feel like that of a man who has truly internalised either the urgency of the climate crisis or the scale of the opportunity offered by a green recovery. Ultimately, Sunak spoke as much about bypasses as he did green energy. The closing sub-Thatcherite paean to the power of the individual and the importance of community felt less like a coherent theory of government than a naked pitch to the Party faithful who will select the next Tory leader. The complete failure to engage with the looming end to the Brexit transition period was a dereliction of duty. The manifesto-busting decision to cut Overseas Development Aid is a blatant breach of trust, naked populism, and a huge headache for the UK's climate diplomats ahead of COP26 all rolled into one.
Ultimately, Sunak somehow managed to combine record spending and deficits with the very real impression that he was itching to unleash a new wave of austerity. There was, suprisingly, given Johnson's recent focus on the net zero transition and post-Brexit agenda very little sense of a long-term vision.
The UK is continuing to experience one of the worst death rates and deepest economic contractions of any country in Europe. And now hopes that the country could put itself on track to lead the global net zero transition and drive a desperately needed green recovery for the rest of the world to follow have been deferred once again, perhaps by a few months, perhaps by longer. As I have noted numerous times before, every four months that passes is around one per cent of the available time to build a fully net zero emission economy. There is no reason to despair just yet, but as always the clock is ticking.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.
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