A new essay collection from Bright Blue argues that net zero will not require vast amounts of public spending, due to the momentum delivered to date on decarbonisation in the UK.
As coronavirus lockdowns measures are gradually relaxed across Europe, calls for governments to establish climate-focused recovery programmes have become ever louder, with many businesses and campaigners fearing that mid-century net zero ambitions could be undermined by bailouts and recovery packages that benefit carbon-intensive industries and projects.
But several major new reports in recent days have stressed that longer-term policy stability, incentive programmes, and reforms crafted and enacted by the UK government over the coming weeks and months could prove just as important - if not more important - to the country reaching its 2050 climate goal than the much-debated stimulus packages.
An essay collection published late last week by centre right think tank Bright Blue and professional services firm WSP argued the government should prioritise market-based reforms over vast public spending programmes as it works toward delivering on its net zero goal in the wake of the coronavirus crisis that has devastated the economy.
"The transition to net zero is often seen as a leftist policy, requiring vast amounts of government-led investment and intervention," the report authors note in the introduction. "Yet, this neglects the progress that has been made on decarbonisation to date and could be made in the future through well-regulated markets with sensible incentives from government."
A range of different policies and programmes to facilitate the pathway to net zero are suggested in the collection, which is titled 'Delivering Net Zero; Building Britain's Resilient Recovery' and includes contributions from executives from major businesses such as Ikea and Heathrow Airport, as well as leading academics, politicians, and campaigners.
For one, Nick Chater, professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School, suggests the government introduced a 'carbon pound' tagged to all goods and services that would alert consumers to the environmental impact of their purchases and activities. He explained that the 'carbon pound' would not cost the consumer anything, but would encourage people to keep the environmental impact of their consumption under control - a bit like calories printed on a food label.
"We all know how to budget with money," Chater explained. "So, it makes psychological sense to translate the problem of budgeting with carbon into a familiar form: creating purely ‘virtual' prices reflecting the carbon impacts, but, crucially, in units of currency."
New social norms that encourage flying less, eating less meat, and using public or green transport must be established to ensure that government net zero policy is a success, Chater argues, adding that the process must be approached carefully. The 'gilet jaune' protests to diesel tax increases in France in 2018 are a testament to the danger of mandating behaviour change "too quickly or in inappropriate ways", he warns.
The 'carbon pound' is one of a host of innovative policies that are thrown into the Westminster mix at a time when the government is said to be in the market for new ideas that can help both stimulate the economy and cut emissions.
For example, Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network, stresses the burning and extraction of peatland, the UK's largest terrestrial store of carbon, should be banned. Peatland, which makes up 12 per cent of the UK's land area, can sequester additional carbon in good condition, he explains, but it can fast become a carbon emitter if its natural wet condition is damaged.
Hall also argues that marine habitats that store carbon - such as saltmarsh and seagrass meadows - should be included in the UK's carbon accounting framework, and that an Environmental Land Management scheme should be established to reward farmers for planting trees on their land alongside the planned reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy system of direct payments for farmers that forms the centrepiece of the new Agriculture Bill,.
Meanwhile, Alaisdair MacEwan, director of public affairs consultancy Culmer Raphael, argues that HM Treasury should be reformed to become the "lead department" on decarbonisation policy. He proposes that a new scorecard should be established that grades every new Treasury policy decision against the country's net zero ambition, in order for the department to transition from climate auditor to climate leader.
The Government Economic Service should deliver more environmental and climate training for officials and the Green Book should be updated to ensure structural changes are consistent, he adds. Moreover, the title and responsibilities of the Chancellor could be amended to include climate change, and Permanent Secretaries should be restricted to fulfilling two or three central objectives for their institutions, one being a decarbonised economy.
Reforms to the Treasury were also suggested by the chair of the Energy Data taskforce Laura Sandys in a piece that argues that the underlying "plumbing" of the UK's economic system must be rejigged in order to modernise how investment is valued. The government must reposition climate as a health and safety issue, she stresses, and outline how it intends to channel jobs in carbon intensive sectors towards the net zero transition. She also calls for GDP to be abandoned as a metric of economic success - a radical approach that recent polling has suggested enjoys considerable public support.
"These plumbing reforms should fit right into Dominic Cummings' philosophy around systems design and there is no better test than how we can address climate change, deliver net zero and at the same time deliver a vibrant modern economy," Sandys notes, in reference to the Prime Minister's influential advisor.
Meanwhile, Shaun Kingsbury, former chief executive officer of the Green Investment Bank, which was privatised by the government in 2017, argues that an international Green Investment Bank should be set up, inspired by state-run counterparts but unrestrained by the geographic scope and limited capital of national governments.
And Dr Peter Maddox, director of resource efficiency charity WRAP, sets out how new extended producer responsibility (EPR), which mandates that plastic producers pay for the costs of dealing with their material at end of life, could help reduce the worst forms of plastic packaging. Collection of plastic should be made uniform across the all English local council, he says, arguing that such clarity would eliminate household confusion over what can and can not be recycled.
A plastic packaging tax should also be introduced, he adds, which would be imposed on all packaging with less than 30 per cent recycled content, while the introduction of a Deposit Return Scheme for drinks packaging could encourage consumers to return empty packaging after use.
The collection also includes a number of eye-catching contributions from leading business figures. Sarwjit Sambhi, chief executive for Centrica Consumer, argues that the government's proposed Future Homes Standard should be pulled forward from 2025, effectively banning the use of gas in new build homes, while Peter Jelkeby, country chief executive officer of Ikea UK and Ireland urges the government to ramp up incentive programmes for electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure and energy efficiency upgrades for commercial buildings.
Finally, Conservative MP and former Transport Minister George Freeman argues that transport policy should be extricated from its traditional modal divisions - aviation, road, rail, sipping - in favour of a place-based approach that gives more authority to local leaders to make decisions and funnel local innovation towards regional transport challenges.
"We must liberate and harness people's willingness to do things for their own places more than the government, and allow local leaders to try new approaches," he writes. "We need to change the planning development paradigm away from car dependency, and car and home ownership and insist on a much more joined-up place-based transport and tech planning."
He also notes how the net zero transition offers opportunities for "so-called 'left behind' places like Teesside, parts of Northern Ireland and Humberside" to become vibrant green industrial hubs.
Overall, the collection's authors contend that the government has made a "good start" in laying the foundations for a net zero economy, but warn that both the state and the market need to provide "significantly more investment and incentives to facilitate deep decarbonisation" over the coming decade.
Net zero 'an immense task'
It is a similar conclusion to that reached by a separate net zero outlook published last week by the National Engineering Policy Centre, which delivers an equally stark assessment of the UK's net zero progress to date. In a paper dubbed Net Zero: A systems perspective on the climate challenge, the group notes that the government is currently "not on track" to meet its target, which it points out is in "less than 1,600 weeks".
"A strong government-led vision for 2050 is needed now to drive coordinated, achievable action across all parts of society and government, with urgency and ambition," the report notes. "The UK has less than 1,600 weeks to meet the target of net zero territorial emissions; it is a massive undertaking. It will involve simultaneous transformation of several vital, interconnected infrastructure systems: from transport and housing, to energy and manufacturing. It requires developing whole new industries to maturity and supporting sweeping societal, cultural, behavioural and structural change."
The NEPC, a partnership between 39 UK engineering organisations, published the paper as it kicked off an 18-month research project that seeks to identify and explore priorities for action that can help drive net zero progress using a 'systems-thinking' appraoch. The project will result in a guidance document for policymakers and other decision makers, the group said.
To reach net zero, policy areas previously approached separately or in isolation need to be recognised as interconnected, the report argues. "Government faces the challenge of designing and implementing policy across all economic sectors," it states. "This is an immense task, but an achievable one given the right approach. As engineers involved in designing systems, we can also apply systems thinking to complex challenges such as decarbonisation."
The NEPC highlighted nine broad policy areas and economic sectors that must adapt, dubbing them "interconnected systems" that will require "complete systemic transformation". These range from energy generation, storage, and transmission, and agriculture and land use to manufacturing, international trade, and individual and community behaviour.
Key challenges to the UK reaching its milestone, the group stressed, are the long-lead times for individual infrastructure projects; the scale of behavioural and societal changes required for demand reduction; the deployment challenge of retrofitting all emissions sources; the speed at which new technology and infrastructure will need to be deployed and the pressure on the UK to assume a leadership role or risk leaving the nation "less commercially competitive".
It is a conclusion echoed by Sir John Armitt, chair of the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), who picked up on several of the themes identified by the Bright Blue essay collection and the engineer consortium in an open letter sent to the Chancellor on Sunday.
Armitt urged the government to establish a policy and regulatory environment in the wake of the coronavirus crisis that would allow the country to move closer to its net zero target. While short-term stimulus measures are important, he wrote, it is important that the government take a longer view as it seeks to heal the economy.
In his letter, Armitt recommended that the clean power Contracts for Difference scheme should be expanded, and major cities be given greater investment and more powers to develop urban pubic transport schemes. He also suggested that the government should improve the connectivity of regional clusters outside of the south east of England, in particular by boosting transport links.
"Confidence can be won, and crucially private investment can be unlocked, by government setting out a long-term infrastructure strategy and continuing with front-end planning for longer-term schemes - even if any construction work may be some years away," Armitt said.
As Ministers, officials, and opposition MPs all step up the search for a new wave of policies that can lead the UK out of the coronavirus crisis and towards its long term net zero goals, it appears that there are already plenty of credible proposals to draw upon.
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