Select Committee Chairs join wave of calls for a green recovery in letter to Chancellor that warns economic stimulus channeled towards carbon-intensive infrastructure projects would be a 'historic mistake'
The chairs of the Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) have urged the chancellor to use the forthcoming Covid-19 recovery package to boost low carbon industries, warning that infrastructure and investment decisions made in the coming months will be "critical" to building the UK's resilience to the escalating climate crisis.
In a letter sent to Chancellor Rishi Sunak today, committee chairs Darren Jones and Philip Dunne argued that a net zero aligned economy recovery could establish the UK as a climate leader ahead of its presidency of the G7 and COP26 climate conference in 2021, while stimulating the economy, generating jobs, and improving public health and wellbeing.
The intervention comes ahead of a major speech from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, scheduled for tomorrow, which is expected to set out the broad outline of the government's economic stimulus plan. Reports over the weekend revealed Ministers are working on a sweeping set of proposals - dubbed 'Project Speed' - to accelerate infrastructure development in a bid to head off a deep recession and mass unemployment.
In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, Johnson said the coronavirus crisis had been "a huge, huge shock to the country but we're going to bounce back very well". "We want to build our way back to health," he added.
Separately, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, delivered a wide-ranging speech this weekend sketching out proposals for civil service reform that are designed to make the UK government less London-centric and encourage far greater policy experimentation in pursuit of long term goals, such as tackling inequality and building a net zero emission economy.
"We can, literally, reduce the distance between government and people by relocating government decision-making centres to different parts of our United Kingdom," Gove said. "And in doing so we should be striving to reflect the full diversity of our United Kingdom. Why shouldn't some of the policymakers intimately involved in reshaping our approach to energy and the decarbonisation of our economy be in Teesside, Humberside and Aberdeen? Shouldn't those thinking about this sector be part of the communities whose jobs depend on getting these decisions right?"
Gove's sweeping plans took on further relevance late yesterday with the resignation of the UK's top civil servant, Sir Mark Sedwill, amidst reports of significant tensions between senior civil servants and Number 10.
The latest comments from senior Ministers served to further underline the government's commitment to delivering a 'green recovery'. However, concerns are growing amongst environmental campaigners that any new support for the net zero transition could be undermined by government efforts to also accelerate the development of high carbon infrastructure and slash planning protections.
Those fears were further fueled today as the Financial Times reported plans for a massive increase in building energy efficiency funding were the subject of a major Whitehall turf war, with the Prime Minister's top advisor, Dominic Cummings, said to be opposed to the proposals. The paper said the Treasury and BEIS are keen to see a manifesto commitment to invest £9.2bn in energy efficiency upgrades fast-tracked in a bid to cut emissions in line with the UK's 2050 net zero target while creating jobs across the country. But Cummings is said to want the funding to be reassigned to support the building of new homes. One source told the paper, he regards the proposals as "boring old housing insulation" while another said he was sceptical about the 2050 net-zero target.
Today, Jones and Dunne added their voices to this growing chorus warning that strategies that deliver new carbon-intensive energy, transport, and industrial infrastructure projects would prove a "historic mistake".
"The UK's post-crisis economic recovery package presents a major opportunity to accelerate investment on climate adaptation and cutting emissions to net zero," Jones and Dunne wrote. "This is necessary to avert an even greater future national and global crisis caused by climate change. Crucially, it will also spur innovation, create jobs and bring substantial economic benefits to the UK and the wider world."
Pressure is mounting on the government to implement a so-called green recovery to the coronavirus crisis, after months of calls from civil society, academia, business, and politicians for Ministers to prioritise investments in low-carbon infrastructure and nature restoration projects that can accelerate the UK's transition to a net zero economy.
Just last week, the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) called on the government to support a raft of labour-intensive net zero projects in a hard-hitting report that warned the UK was not making sufficient progress towards its 2050 net zero target.
In the document, the government's climate advisors warned the UK was far from being on track to achieve net zero, highlighting insufficient progress in improving building energy efficiency, decarbonising transport and industry, and changing land use, as well as a "dearth of climate adaption planning in government".
And today, leading think tank Green Alliance set out its vision for a green recovery, arguing the government faced a "once-in-a-generation opportunity for the government to hardwire the environment into a post-Covid economy".
"For 'Project Speed' to be successful, it must be the most ambitious climate infrastructure project ever - creating jobs in every corner of the United Kingdom - and it can't mean a regulation bonfire locking in a high carbon economy and polluting activities for decades to come," said Chris Venables, head of politics at the think tank. "With alarming temperatures recorded in the Arctic last week, it's clear the climate crisis has not gone away, and no country will be immune. The Prime Minister needs to show real leadership this week or risk a downward spiral as the impacts of the environmental crises take hold."
It remains to be seen whether the government will heed the avalanche of calls it has received over recent months and beef up its net zero decarbonisation efforts through its imminent economic recovery package.
Responding to the demands in today's letter from Jones and Dunne, a spokesperson from the Treasury said the government would work to deliver clean and sustainable economic growth as it took steps to reboot the economy.
"Throughout this crisis, we've continued to take our environmental responsibilities seriously and remain committed to meeting our climate change and wider environmental targets, including our commitment to net zero by 2050," they said. "We are committed to investing in stimulating a green recovery, including recently announcing a £250m emergency active travel fund for the rapid expansion of cycle and walking routes across England. As we take action to rebuild our economy we will aim to drive clean, sustainable and inclusive growth across all regions of the UK."
Reports have suggested that Ministers are looking to create thousands of green jobs in carbon capture and storage (CCUS), hydrogen, active transport, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and building efficiency programmes. However, the government has failed to attach any specific climate-related conditions to the various loans and bailout packages already provided to automakers and aviation companies, causing significant concern among campaigners. There are also fears in some quarters that the bulk of any green stimulus measures could be deferred until the autumn budget.
In today's missive, the committee chairs point out that the British public is likely to back a green recovery, flagging findings - also published last week - that revealed that 79 per cent of Climate Assembly UK 'strongly agree' or 'agree' that economic recovery plans should be designed to achieve net zero emissions.
Climate Assembly UK was convened last year by a cross-party group of six House of Commons Select Committees - including the EAC and BEIS Committee - in order to get a take from an informed cross-section of the British public on how the country should meet its net zero goals.
The letter to the Chancellor comes as the EAC launches a new inquiry, dubbed 'Greening the post-Covid recovery' and ahead of the BEIS Committee's evidence hearing on Thursday, which will examine the Committee on Climate Change's progress report and the results of the UK Climate Assembly.
The EAC's inquiry will monitor the government's economic recovery packages and identify opportunities that can improve environmental safeguarding. It expects to publish a report ahead of the Autumn Budget, when the government is expected to reveal its full spending package.
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