Prime Minister takes swipe at 'people used to sneer at wind power 20 years ago' in speech that majors on green economy ambitions
Boris Johnson today gave arguably his biggest backing yet to the UK's burgeoning green economy, in a speech to the Conservative Party conference that placed wind power, green jobs, and clean technologies at the heart of his agenda to "build back better" from the Covid-19 crisis.
In a speech that placed an emphasis on optimism and resilience in the face of ongoing Covid-19 challenges, the Prime Minister sought to paint the pandemic as a chance for renewal for the UK economy, as he bemoaned a "long term failure" on skills training and "inadequate infrastructure".
"After all we've been through, it isn't enough just to go back to normal," he said. "And it will not."
Johnson argued that human history had shown the aftermath of wars, famine and plagues "are more often than not the trigger for acceleration of social and economic change, because we human beings will simply not content ourselves with a repair job".
"We see these moments as the time to learn and to improve on the world that went before and that's why this government will build back better," the PM added.
And after emphasising his ambition to offer more government support for care homes, public health, and policing, Johnson majored on his plans to deliver a "green industrial revolution", as he confirmed the clutch of new offshore and floating wind power targets trailed last night.
"There's one area where we are progressing with gale force speed, and that is the green economy," he said. "The green industrial revolution that in the next 10 years will create hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs."
He confirmed the government would increase the UK's 2030 offshore wind target to 40GW, up from the previous 30GW, as part of an ambition for every home in Britain to be powered by wind energy by the end of the decade.
In addition, the government is aiming for 1GW of floating wind power capacity by the same date, backed by £160m investment in ports and factories to support turbine manufacturing, and plans to double the capacity of renewable energy contracts up for grabs in next year's Contracts for Difference auction.
Further details forming a trailed 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution are expected to be laid out in November, with reports indicating hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, small modular nuclear reactors, electric vehicles, and green synthetic fuels are likely to feature heavily. The long-awaited Energy White Paper setting out the government's road map to net zero power and heating is also thought to be imminent.
Johnson said today the government's aim was to "become the world leader in low cost clean power generation cheaper than coal, cheaper than gas", as he touted the economic benefits of renewables for communities such as Teesside, the Humber, Scotland, and Wales.
"As Saudi Arabia is to oil, the UK is to wind - a place of almost limitless resource," he said. "But in the case of wind, without the carbon emissions. Without the damage to the environment."
And in move that may rankle a section of the PM's supporters, he then then took a swipe at critics of renewable energy, even condemning his own past comments in which he famously mocked the ability of wind power to assist with the consumption of popular tinned deserts. "I remember how some people used to sneer at wind power 20 years ago and say you wouldn't pull the skin off or rice pudding," Johnson joked. "Well, they forgot the history of this country. It was offshore wind, the path the sails of Drake and rally and Nelson and propelled this country to greatness."
Johnson then went on to tout a future path to the UK's 2050 net zero emissions target characterised by "highly skilled green collar jobs in wind and solar, nuclear, hydrogen, and in carbon capture and storage, retrofitting homes, ground source heat pumps".
"Mother Nature has savaged us with Covid," Johnson added. "But with the help of basic natural phenomena, we will build back and banks back greener, and this government will lead that green Industrial Revolution."
The announcements on wind power and green jobs were warmly welcomed by the green economy, including Chris Stark, CEO of the UK's independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC), although he stressed that far more action was also urgently needed in other areas of the economy to deliver on the net zero goal.
"If we're to reach net zero UK emissions by 2050, we'll need to see similarly bold commitments to cut emissions from our buildings, industry, transport and land," he said. "But today's pledge, if delivered, is a positive sign that we're heading in the right direction."
However, there was scant reference in Johnson's speech to the myriad problems faced by the government's Covid-19 track and trace system, nor the worsening economic outlook that some observers fear could yet derail his ambitious green agenda.
And with so many key pieces of green policy and legislation still in the government's in-tray - including the Environment Bill, National Infrastructure Strategy, and Transport Decarbonisation Plan - on top of the outcome of the fraught Brexit negotiations at the end of the year, there remains significant question marks over the government's ability to deliver on its ambitious green industrial revolution vision at scale.
In his speech, Johnson sought to tout a "dynamic recovery that is led not by the state but by free enterprise", arguing the need for a UK that is "more competitive in tax and regulation", as he again sought to paint a bright future for a greener Britain outside the EU.
In a decade's time, he claimed, some trucks and trains could be running on hydrogen, alongside millions of newly planted trees, cleaner air and improved standards, such as animal welfare.
"I want you to imagine you're arriving in Britain in 2030, when I hope that much of the programme that I have outlined will be delivered, and you arrive in your zero carbon jet made in the UK and you flash your Brexit blue passport or your digital ID and get an EV electric vehicle taxi, and as you travel around you see a country that has been and is being transformed for the better," Johnson said.
But Labour's Alan Whitehead, Shadow Minister for Energy and the Green New Deal, said the PM's announcement was "big on style but sorely lacking in substance".
He pointed out that 40GW would not be enough to power every home in Britain, and that there was in any case no detail on how the government plans to prepare the UK power grid for such a huge growth in electricity from intermittent wind power.
"Ambition is important but it's useless without a proper plan and package of proposals to deliver it," he said. "To power every home by 2030 we need other forms of low-carbon energy generation too, to offset the variability of wind, like solar, tidal lagoons, biomass stations and hydrogen."
"Boris Johnson is not known as a details man, but to deliver a truly low-carbon future, he must give the policy as much attention as he does the press release," Whitehead added.
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No Prime Minister has ever been quite so explicit in their backing for the clean technologies that will drive this green revolution - this matters enormously
By Eva Zabey, Executive Director, Business for Nature