Net Zero gets the royal treatment

James S Murray
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Net Zero gets the royal treatment

This week brought positive mood music from the Johnson government on climate action

What is the great animating project of the Johnson government?

So far the consensus seems to be that there is no consensus. Look at the response to today's Queen's Speech and all the key words are there - Brexit, the NHS, police and justice, populist power grabs and culture war touchpoints - but there is little in the way of an over-arching narrative. Right wing in parts, one nation or even left-leaning in others, Johnson is proving as hard to pin down as ever. 

But what if the big picture is hiding in plain sight? As I argued during the election campaign Johnson made the net zero transition surprisingly central to his set piece speeches, repeatedly reiterating his commitment to the complete decarbonisation of the UK economy within 30 years while backed by fleets of electric taxis and armed with some characteristic techno-optimism. And yet somehow the Lobby largely managed to miss the significance of what they were being told and clung to the line it was a pragmatic, by the numbers campaign, with little in the way of big picture vision.

The same thing has happened again today with a Queen's Speech chocked full of significant new green policies and a clear pledge to deliver a net zero economy. This is a huge deal and it comes on the same day as the UK again confirmed clean energy records that would have been inconceivable even a few years ago. And yet you will not see the net zero vision in headlines anywhere (outside of BusinessGreen obvs). By far the biggest and most significant part of the Queen's Speech for the UK's long term prospects is pushed to the sidelines.

Of course, Johnson's many opponents (and even some of his allies) will argue that he is not too be trusted on any of this. That he has no such vision. That the Brexit entanglement will undermine his carbon cutting efforts, that his agenda is underpowered anyway when set against the scale of the climate crisis, and even if he manages to get a trade deal with the EU and put the economy on a reasonable footing he will simply reverse ferret and ditch the green agenda at the first sign of right wing media criticism.

This pessimism is entirely understandable and there is plenty of evidence to support it. But from a business perspective most executives and investors will conclude that the more logical approach is to look at what the government is saying - repeatedly, at volume - and conclude net zero is coming.

It is there in the manifesto, it is there in the Queen's Speech, it is there in the plans for a raft of new green bills, it is there in the statements from the Chancellor and the Business Secretary, it is there in the briefings that DECC is to be revived, it is there in the diplomatic push in support of COP26 in Glasgow, it is there in the blog posts of the R&D obsessed Dominic Cummings and the career choices of the PM's partner and family. 

Backsliding remains a clear possibility, as does a triangulating, R&D-focused net zero strategy that ducks near term challenges. It will be a year or so until we know how serious this government is about transforming the UK economy along genuinely sustainable lines. Is it really willing to take on the big, chunky challenges, such as decarbonising heat, developing green aviation, or imposing carbon border tariffs? Or will Johnson's climate strategy never move beyond savvy political positioning?

For now though, one thing is absolutely clear. The UK's net zero vision has got the royal seal of approval and there are reasons to think it will provide the new government with its defining goal beyond Brexit.

And that is as good a point as any to wrap things up for the year. 

A version of this article first appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing, our daily newsletter briefing exclusively for our subscribers.  

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