Covid-19 stimulus plan must prioritise green building upgrades, tree planting, fossil fuel taxes, and skills training, advises Committee on Climate Change
The government must immediately embark on a major green investment drive to upgrade homes and buildings, plant trees and restore peatland, upskill the workforce, and roll out low carbon transport infrastructure if it is to deliver a resilient recovery from Covid-19 and lay the foundations for a net zero economy, the UK's top climate advisors have today warned Ministers.
In a "bumper" edition of its annual assessment of progress towards the UK's decarbonisation targets, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) called on the government to move without delay in supporting a raft of 'no-regrets', shovel-ready, and labour-intensive net zero projects that could help get the economy motoring again after the devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
The 196-page report lays out "strong evidence" that 'green stimulus' measures - which have garnered widespread support from businesses, NGOs, academics, and civil society over the past two months - would support both the UK's short and long term economic needs, in addition to furthering climate goals.
As well as investing directly in shovel-ready green projects, policies mooted in the report include raising taxes on fossil fuels, phasing out new petrol and diesel car sales by 2032, and adding 'green strings' such as green product development goals and climate risk assessment requirements to any company bailouts.
CCC chief executive Chris Stark said that while the evidence in favour of a green recovery was now clear, the window of opportunity for delivering an ambitious policy programme was short, and the government must act rapidly and decisively to turn the devastating Covid-19 crisis into a defining moment in the fight against climate change.
"Covid-19 itself is not an opportunity, but I think it is true to say it has created an opportunity - and that's the chance to pull off a sharper course correction [for] UK emissions and to be better prepared for the kind of changes in climate that are coming for the country," said Stark.
"What we're really saying in this report, as clearly as we can, is: go for it," he added. "To the government: go for it. Make this a green recovery. There is rich evidence of the many, many straightforward benefits to the economy if we do that - if we use climate investments as the basis of that recovery."
It comes as the Treasury prepares a crucial package of recovery measures which are expected to be announced in Parliament next month, as the government attempts to combat the worst economic crisis in decades. Reports have suggested the Chancellor Rishi Sunak is looking to spur a "green industrial revolution" in the wake of Covid-19, while the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly said the world must "move towards a greener, cleaner, and more resilient future" after the pandemic.
Responding to the CCC's report today, a government spokesperson said, "we agree with the Committee that tackling climate change should be at the heart of our economic recovery".
"We believe that the actions we need to take to achieve our zero emissions target can help to deliver a stronger, cleaner, more sustainable and more resilient economy after this pandemic - and already there are over 460,000 UK jobs in low-carbon businesses and their supply chains," they added.
The government's encouraging green rhetoric has been welcomed by businesses and campaigners, but observers also fear that Ministers could deliver a series of piecemeal measures that are phased in over the coming year, rather than provide the transformational programme the CCC and others believe is required.
The CCC's latest assessment comes almost exactly a year after the UK became the first major economy in the world to set a net zero target in law for 2050, and the Committee warned little progress had been made in most areas since the legislation passed.
It welcomed the government's pledges to this year hold a Treasury review of the costs of meeting net zero, develop a net zero emissions trading scheme after Brexit, establish a cabinet committee on climate change, and produce a National Infrastructure Strategy.
But it said of 31 indicators set out by the CCC in its 2019 progress report, only two had been fully achieved, with partial progress on another 15, predominantly across transport and industry, and as such concerted policy action now needed to accelerate.
The past year has seen a change of Prime Minister, an election, the UK's departure from the EU, and the coronavirus crisis, all of which have combined to delay a raft of critical net zero-related policy measures, such as the long-awaited energy white paper and national infrastructure strategy.
However, todays report stresses that with rapid action the government now has an opportunity to set out an ambitious, world-leading climate policy programme over the coming 18 months before it hosts the critical COP26 international climate summit in Glasgow in autumn 2021.
Top of the agenda for any UK stimulus package should be a huge green building upgrade programme to ensure homes and businesses are more energy and water efficient, as well as more resilient to growing climate impacts such as storms and overheating, the report suggests. Specifically, it recommends developing skills and supply chains for home renovation measures and heat pumps, and the introduction of green energy 'passports' that would effectively act as regular MOTs for existing homes to help stimulate the market for green products.
A major energy efficiency drive would support jobs and skills right across the country, it argues, as would natural capital investments in tree planting, peatland restoration, and green infrastructure.
And with unemployment set to rise in the coming months, the CCC said the government should establish wide-ranging retraining programmes for workers focused on green skills such as tree planting, energy efficiency, and other areas, on top of targeted science and innovation funding for new green technologies.
Additionally, the government has a huge opportunity to capitalise on the recent societal support for walking and cycling, as well as homeworking, by offering funding for active travel infrastructure, and shifting planned investment in roadbuilding over to telecoms and 5G broadband provision, the report recommends.
Such is the scale of both the current economic opportunity and the climate crisis, that any policy and investment decisions made by the government now which lock in emissions or climate risks would be "unacceptable", warned CCC chairman Lord Deben.
"The UK is facing its biggest economic shock for a generation," he said. "Meanwhile, the global crisis of climate change is accelerating. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address these urgent challenges together; it's there for the taking. The steps that the UK takes to rebuild from the Covid-19 pandemic can accelerate the transition to a successful and low-carbon economy and improve our climate resilience."
Earlier this week the citizens' Climate Assembly UK set up by Parliament further piled pressure on the government to deliver a climate-friendly Covid-19 recovery with a report which found "remarkable consensus" amongst the public for greener lifestyle changes going forward.
And today's calls from the CCC for immediate action to support green projects and get the UK's net zero efforts on track attracted broad support from politicians, think tanks, NGOs, civil society, and businesses alike.
Rain Newton-Smith, chief economist at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), called the CCC's "vital" intervention an "urgent reminder that we need to do more to get on track to achieve net zero emissions".
"It outlines many welcome measures for carbon-reduction, as well as highlighting some areas where further consultation with business will be needed," she said. "As we look to build back better from the Covid-19 crisis, we reach a critical moment in our fight against the climate emergency. Business stands shoulder to shoulder with political leaders and consumers in its desire for ambitious change."
Chris Venables, head of politics at think tank Green Alliance, also welcomed the CCC's "important and urgent" conclusions, and said MPs and government minister now had "a lot of reading to do".
"We're at a critical juncture in our national efforts to address climate change and host a successful UN climate conference next year, while at the same time responding to coronavirus," he said. "The CCC is right to demand more from government. The next year will require real leadership and planning across a wide range of fronts if we are to rise to these complex and interlinked challenges. We cannot afford another year of stalling, patchy progress and half-developed policies."
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