The Prime Minister's proposal for a modern-day green Marshall Plan has a huge amount to recommend it, but can he really build a coalition to deliver such ambitious investment while cutting Overseas Development Aid?
A lot of historical analogies have been deployed to try and capture the full scope and significance of the global effort to avert a climate crisis. It's like the industrial revolution, like a war effort, like the civil rights movement, like the campaign to end slavery, like the suffragettes, like the digital revolution, like the moon missions. The truth is it is like all these things and none of them. It will involve an industrial revolution, but it has to be bigger and faster than any previous economic transformations; it needs the co-ordination and ambition of a war effort, but harnessed for co-operation rather than conflict; it may well need global enlightenment and an historic extension of civil rights, but that alone will not be sufficient.
However, there is one historical precedent that gets cited from time to time that offers a detailed and potentially very useful model for those policymakers wrestling with how to catalyse a new wave of climate action: The Marshall Plan.
Number 10 deployed it again this week, providing The Times with a pretty detailed briefing on the Prime Minister's hopes for getting the G7 to sign off on a Green Marshall Plan that would serve to turbocharge the developing world's still badly under-funded climate strategies.
There is a lot to like in both the specific historical analogy and the broader focus on the post-war period. It was a time when much of the world moved swiftly and boldly from an era of death and destruction to a new rules based international order defined by ambitious Keynesian economics and significant levels of enlightened self interest. The Marshall Plan channeled billions of US dollars into essential infrastructure projects right across Europe, laying the foundations for decades of economic progress, not to mention peace and prosperity where they had previously been violence and atrocity. It was a key part of a wide-ranging package of measures that delivered one of the most rapid expansions in human well-being in history.
In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the escalating climate crisis, and the post-2008 rise of nationalist populism and intensifying geopolitical tensions, it is easy to see why governments should suddenly be taking an interest in the playbook from the late 1940s and 1950s. The opportunity to position Carbis Bay this week and the Glasgow Summit in November as a latter day Bretton Woods clearly appeals to not just Johnson, but also the Biden administration and the EU.
The problem is that Johnson's track record with historical analogies is not always a happy one. Last summer he spoke of a Rooseveltian style recovery package to reignite the post-pandemic economy. He then announced new funding worth 0.2 per cent of GDP compared to the 40 per cent of US GDP assigned to the New Deal. Since then the UK government has axed its most high profile green stimulus scheme and singularly failed to deliver the multi-billion pound infrastructure-focused recovery package Johnson had touted.
A Marshall Plan for green infrastructure (or something similarly ambitious) is basically essential if there is to be any hope of an ambitious new climate deal at COP26. Developing nations have made it abundantly clear they will not sign off on an agreement unless richer nations honour the $100bn funding pledge made under the Paris Agreement as an absolute bare minimum. Emissions cannot be curbed unless developing nations are provided with the financial and technical means to deploy clean infrastructure at scale. Meanwhile, at the geopolitical level the West risks seeing its influence wane further if it fails to provide an offer to developing nations that can compete with China's Belt and Road infrastructure largesse.
But it remains unclear how Johnson can expect other governments to sign off on a green Marshall Plan when his government is currently fighting with his own MPs to ram through a manifesto-torching cut to Overseas Development Aid budgets. His analysis may be right, but where is the execution?
As one commentator noted on Twitter, the Prime Minister can hardly be accused of laying the groundwork for his otherwise welcome Marshall Plan proposal.
If I was seeking international agreement for a climate ‘Marshall plan' I wld have already sorted out my contribution & wld not have slashed my aid budget. I wld also not be having a huge fight with the EU about < checks notes > an international agreement.https://t.co/vW5RzLUUme— Master Storyteller (@Sime0nStylites) June 8, 2021
Tom McTague's brilliant profile of Johnson for The Atlantic this week further fuelled the impression of a Prime Minister who thinks he can prosper by simply channelling the power of positive thinking. There is no doubt that such optimism could prove to be an extremely useful tool in driving the post-pandemic recovery and turbocharging the net zero transition. But in the corridors of a G7 Summit or a UN Climate Summit over-promising and under-delivering is a recipe for disaster.
Johnson may have hit on the right historical model, but now he has to deliver.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.