As Britain confronts the unemployment crisis that will blight so many lives this winter, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has promised to be “creative” in introducing new measures to support jobs. Mr Sunak still seems stubbornly determined to end, next month, the furlough scheme that remains a lifeline for so many workers. But the misery that will ensue appears to have persuaded him that some kind of alternatives must be found. Inevitably they will be cheaper and less effective, but when the criticism comes, Mr Sunak will protest that it is not the government’s role to indefinitely prop up businesses that the pandemic has consigned to the past.
What about propping up the future then? The government’s failure to develop any kind of plan to meet legally binding net zero targets has flown under the radar in recent months, as coronavirus-related chaos reigns in Whitehall. With the exception of a minimalist GBP2bn “green homes” grant, some new cycle routes and other minor measures, Boris Johnson’s promise to “build back better” has so far proved to be of purely alliterative value.
Germany has allocated GBP36bn to greening its recovery programme, with a strong emphasis on investing in hydrogen. The European commission last week said 30% of a EUR750bn coronavirus recovery fund would be raised through green bonds, as part of a new growth strategy. Mr Johnson’s administration havers, prevaricates and fails to lead. A much-delayed energy white paper is now expected in November, with meaningful action kicked into next year. Meanwhile, an Institute for Government study this month found that the UK is now “well off track” in the race to meet the 2050 net zero target.
The immobilism is not only negligent; it is baffling. As numerous reports and studies have pointed out, a pump-primed green industrial strategy is not only the obvious way to meet Britain’s legal obligation to move towards net zero; it can also hold the key to Mr Johnson’s regional “levelling up” agenda and help address the country’s Covid-induced unemployment crisis. A recent study, commissioned by the Trades Union Congress, outlined a “just transition” plan that could generate 1.24m new jobs across Britain. With sufficient government investment, and clear signals to private investors that the state will offer incentives and share the risk of innovation, the post-industrial map of Britain could be redrawn.
The north-east of England has the potential to become an international hub of carbon capture technologies and wind-related new energy sources, such as green hydrogen. Belated large-scale investment into new battery technologies could transform the automotive industry in the Midlands and Wales, as fossil-fuel transport is phased out. England’s north-west has nuclear expertise, and government inaction in this sector has already cost Wales dear. Nationally, the Institute for Government is calling for a mobilising body, along the lines of the Olympic Delivery Authority, to retrofit homes and workplaces across the country.
For a government that styles itself as the new champion of Labour’s old “red wall” constituencies, the opportunity to embed such places in the nation’s economic future – after decades of neglect and decline – seems obvious. Yet traditional Tory preoccupations about state intervention in the economy and “picking winners” appear to be too hard to shake off. Mr Johnson has recently been more interested in denouncing climate activists as “crusty leftwing anarchists” than in coming up with the long-term green strategy the country needs. However changeable his disposition towards his government’s other legal obligations, he must not be allowed to turn the commitment to net zero into another front in his facile culture wars.
Britain is lagging far behind its neighbours in developing the green industries of the future, at a time when the jobs stimulus they could provide has never been more needed. Without a new sense of urgency, and some genuinely creative thinking from the government, this risks becoming both a moral abdication and an economic folly.