The government's new strategy is high risk and financially underpowered, but it still represents a massive boost for the green economy and may yet deliver on its enormous promise
How's the glass looking? Half full? Half empty? Lying smashed on the floor? Raised aloft in victory?
The long-awaited publication of the government's much-anticipated Net Zero Strategy offers a chance for reflection, a micro-second long chance to take a breath before the continuation of this overwhelming and chaotic autumn of climate-related developments, an opportunity to honestly answer the question, 'how's it going?'
It is possible to eviscerate the new Net Zero Strategy, and some will seize upon that opportunity.
The strategy has many glaring inadequacies and missed opportunities. Energy efficiency - that most obvious of co-benefit-generating investments - remains badly underfunded. The crucial proposals to revive the UK's nuclear pipeline, tackle industrial emissions, and build a hydrogen industry are still light on details. The various funding pledges look good on paper, but amount to a level of direct government investment that suggests the Prime Minister's promise of a post-Covid Rooseveltian stimulus package will go unfulfilled. The Strategy has little to say on public engagement, whether it relates to the contentious topics of changing diets and reducing the number of flights or the simpler need to switch lights off and embrace clean technologies. There is not enough new thinking on how to tackle the worsening net zero skills shortage or elegantly extricate the UK from its reliance on fossil fuels and enable a just transition. The scandalous failure to plan for a collapse in fuel duty revenues continues. The Strategy has too little to say about planning reform, local government, or overarching governance reforms. There is not enough funding for boosting natural carbon sinks and the plan does nothing to halt the environmental disaster of torched peatlands. From sustainable aviation fuels to direct air capture, large chunks of the government's plans are reliant on Ministers' characteristic techno-optimism.
More broadly, so much of what has been announced could and should have been delivered years ago. Too much time has been wasted, much of it under a Conservative government. It is not even clear at this stage that the package will deliver on the UK's legally binding Carbon Budgets, let alone the historic net zero goal.
And yet, such a brutal critique feels misguided and counter-productive. The Net Zero Strategy contains two considerable strengths that deserve to be celebrated.
Firstly it is a remarkable achievement that is testament to the staggering pace at which the concept of a net zero emission economy has gone from an environmentalist pipe dream to the defining political, economic, and technological trend of the century. If you had told the diplomats and journalists gathered at the Paris Summit in 2015 that within six years the Paris Agreement's deliberately vague goal to balance anthropogenic emissions during the second half of the century would have turned into a near universal acceptance of the need to build a net zero emission economy by 2050, they would have struggled to believe you. If you'd told them two thirds of the global economy, including the US, China, and EU, had net zero targets in place they would have asked what you were smoking.
And now one of the world's pre-eminent industrialised economies - the crucible of the first industrial revolution - has a detailed plan to fully decarbonise within 30 years. It is a flawed and incomplete plan, but it is a plan. On the eve of COP26 it does provide a workable template for the rest of the world to learn from.
Secondly, the plan contains both an internal logic and a clear opportunity for it to be strengthened over time. It is a strategy made in Boris Johnson's electorally savvy, impulsively optimistic, worryingly detail-lite, but often under-estimated image.
The vision is simple: catalyse the exciting new clean technologies and help them bring down costs; then let the market, the engineers, and the entrepreneurs do the heavy lifting; in the interim talk up the opportunities and the upsides and don't do anything to scare the horses. It is a centre-right, vaguely populist plan from a centre-right vaguely populist government, produced within the confines imposed by a fiscally conservative Tory Chancellor.
There are considerable risks here. It is a Strategy that outsources a lot of the responsibility to the business community - a business community the government keeps insulting and which is currently more than a little preoccupied with Brexit-related disruption and soaring energy prices. It is legitimate to question whether the plan as it stands can deliver the transition at the scale and pace that is required, especially given its reluctance to tackle some of the fundamental market failures at the heart of the fossil fuelled economy. It is also unclear whether this Strategy could survive contact with a Prime Minister Truss or Sunak.
But at the same time this is a broadly positive plan for the UK's green business community and the growing ranks of net zero committed organisations.
It provides a clear market signal about the decarbonising direction of travel and makes explicit where the big economic opportunities lie over the next decade. The plan announced by the Treasury yesterday to make net zero plans mandatory for large businesses and investors is a also huge and under-reported step forward that will serve to embed the net zero transition in every corner of the economy. Taken alongside the overarching Strategy it confirms there is no alternative.
Even the Treasury's much-feared review of the costs of net zero fails to hijack Number 10's plans, instead concluding that the transition promises to deliver net economic benefits on multiple fronts.
Moreover, the specific policies announced yesterday may not add up to the comprehensive strategy some hoped for, but nor are they nothing. New targets for phasing out boilers and sourcing sustainable aviation fuels, fresh mechanisms for driving nuclear and hydrogen investment, additional EV infrastructure and R&D funding - all these measures will help mobilise yet more private investment in the net zero transition far in excess of the welcome £10bn announced yesterday by Bill Gates et al.
The reaction to yesterday's Net Zero Strategy ran the full gamut from angry and condemnatory to delighted and panglossian - that is probably to be expected given the scale of what is being proposed and the existential nature of what is at stake. The truth, as ever, lies somewhere between the two extremes. More government funding would definitely help and the gaps in the strategy need filling fast, but progress is being made.
The glass is not yet half full. We will only reach that stage when global emissions are falling in a sustained and rapid manner. But the glass is filling up. On the eve of COP26 things are moving. We have a plan.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.