Checking in on the Green Recovery

The main appeal of a Green Recovery is it could unlock a windfall of investment.

The great tragedy that scientists have been warning us about for decades that governments around the world haven’t done enough to prepare for has finally hit us. No, not climate change, the other one. I was very much in two minds about writing this blog – after all, what hasn’t been said about Covid 19 at this point, including its parallels and links to the climate crisis. However, conversation about the economic recovery, including the green recovery, seems to have waned, in part because cases continue to rise in what may well have been classed as a second wave by the time I reach the end of this. So, allow me to take the next few hundred words to check in on how the green recovery is doing, and what we should be asking from it.

We’ve seen a raft of green announcements from the government over the course of the year, even at a time when the phrase ‘Covid 19’ would have brought up some very blank Google searches. The decarbonisation of transport is being increasingly looked at, due to the Department of Transport’s mega-plan in that area. Part of the government’s green plans have unusually included retrofits, £2bn worth in a new scheme, the Green Homes Guarantee. However, this fall far short of the £9bn promised in the Conservative party’s own manifesto, and many more than the £35-65bn-ish to 2035 some experts say is required. If this is ‘phase one’ then all well and good, but there has been little noise about a ‘phase two’, nor the serious questions of how to decarbonise heat. Hydrogen and CCS have got some long overdue investment too, but there still isn’t much of a strategic plan. When can we expect pilot projects? What is the market going to look like by 2030?

There’s also the matter of research and development announcements, which the government seems very fond of. While R&D announcements are always welcome, they are not a substitute for actual action. It’s worth noting that the biggest announcements this year from the government have been the 40GW offshore wind target, large public transport infrastructure announcements, bringing forward the 2040 internal combustion engine ban, and onshore wind and solar becoming eligible for future investment – all of which happened before the Covid crisis. Oops. (Although to be fair, since the first draft of this the government did make some noise about a 2030 petrol and diesel ban, only to push it back further in the year – so we’re still left waiting to see). What we’re left with are some fairly sporadic if welcome announcements which do little to tie into a wider plan.

So what should we be asking from a green recovery, if not this? A question that springs to mind to me is, what’s changed? Are we going to stop asking for renewables, or ask for five times as many now there is an economic and health crisis? Neither is the answer – renewable projects are essential, and the volume requested by environmentalists before was based mostly on practical necessity, not political calculations. So really, all the green recovery does is give a platform to ask for the the same demands as before, not a raft of new more radical demands because we feel like it. Renewables, interconnection, storage, electric vehicles, public transports, retrofits, low carbon heating, energy and resource efficiency – none of these have changed because of the economic recovery. The only thing that has changed is the opportunity – a fantastic chance to battle a major threat even in the darkest of times. That’s all the green recovery is, nothing more. It’s not a cheat code to unlock secret powers or make the previously impossible possible. It’s that, if the government yet again kicks the can down the road on heat decarbonisation, or yet again produces a transport plan that buckles on ambition at the last minute, it will be a spectacular and disastrous waste of an already disastrous year. The green recovery doesn’t allow us to go net zero tomorrow, nor does it completely change what need to happen to get us there. It’s a more emotional concept, one of a phoenix rising from the ashes, finding hope and strength in the face of adversity. And that’s completely fine, in fact it’s beautiful. The green recovery is rallying speech when all seems lost, our call to arms after defeat. At the very least, it’s an opportunity to remind us that we can do better. Because the world continues to spin new crises, and the climate flavoured one will endure for far longer than our current situation.

2030 – a partial utopia?

Boiling the kettle remains much the same, but behind this simple act are a range of new forces.

It seems inevitable now that 2020 was going to be an eventful year. Mostly for the wrong reasons. However, for many climate activists, 2019 has been by far the more eventful year, with 2020 stuck in a Covid-related holding pattern. This isn’t quite true however – renewables have soared, and not just because of reduced electrical demand, to be the UK’s largest source of power this year (so far). The citizen’s climate assembly has concluded its results only last week, the government is mulling over new plans to decarbonise transport, climate related economic recovery policies are cropping up all over the world, coal continues its worldwide death spiral, hydrogen has had a leap forward and even housing retrofits have had a new lease of life this year. However, this is all far away from the green utopia of which we are all dreaming, leading to the question – what will it all look like in ten years time? For the talk of goals and targets for future years, we don’t often take the thought experiment of what the future will look like directly.

It’s New Year’s Day, 2030. You wake up in a warm bedroom, despite the overnight storm. Your house is one of those upgraded as part of a retrofit package, which have got increasingly generous over the last decade. You’ve barely thought about the invisible cavity wall and loft insulation upgrades since they were put in a few years ago, especially as everyone eligible in the country has been offered them. More noticeable as you walk downstairs is the heat pump, which you turn down now you’re up. While many people have them now – in fact, they no longer sell old gas boilers, so you have to buy them if your heating needs replacing – it’s taken a long time to get them going, and gas is still the most common form of heating. You remember the shock of replacing the radiators and the disruption to the house when it was first installed, but since, the pump has been quiet and efficient. It’s also cheap, for the electricity supplying it has been much more affordable now that the grid runs almost exclusively off renewable energy, nuclear power, storage and interconnected grids, the storm of the night undeniably feeding in to the dominant form of offshore wind power. You make breakfast, turn on the TV, and start the kettle for a cup of tea. Unbeknownst to you, the new kettle you bought a month ago is made from recycled steel, part of a new drive to reuse industrially intensive resources. If it breaks, you have an app for that, part of a new drive to reuse common household items that’s taken off recently. After breakfast, you call for a rental car to go and visit your family. With more bus and rail links than there used to be, you don’t really need to own a car in many parts of cities and towns, but with reduced services on New Years, it’s one of those times where it pays to have a car on hand. Driving off in your fully electric vehicle, smart systems inside alert you to battery status and the different types of chargers nearby and available. You’re running short of time, so stop off at an ultra-rapid charger at a ‘petrol’ station. Five minutes later and with a fully charged battery you continue on, passing predominantly electric cars, vans, and even an electric lorry. The majority of the cars on the road are electric now, but petrol and diesel cars still have a noticeable presence, even if you can’t buy them anymore from today. With a few miles to go, your mind drifts, and you think about what 2040 will bring.

This is all hypothetical of course. Many will be angry this vision doesn’t include a completely carbon neutral UK, or conversely that everything above is wishful thinking that can’t possibly be expected to take place. Both viewpoints are wrong – it will be virtually impossible to decarbonise areas like flights and heating in the next decade, but equally radical cuts in electricity and road transport are possible with technologies and industries already available to us. It’s also not a completely optimistic view of the future – the storm that hangs over the vision could be fuel for wind turbines or an extreme weather event, depending on interpretation. My vision for 2030 is that of a partial low carbon utopia. One where serious action has been taken on climate change, and emissions are less than half of what they are today, with a lot of new technologies and ideas embraced in a relatively short space of time. Yet there is no denying, not everything can be done in the next ten years, as much as I would like it to be. The 2020s are the critical decade for the climate fight, but they will not end it, only do a majority of the damage to our opponent. If we cannot claim a green utopia in a decade, then we must do everything in our power to claim – a partial utopia.