Skip to main content

An early victim of the COVID-19 pandemic was the 26th United Nations’ Climate Change Conference (COP26). The postponement of the conference in April gave an early indication of the scope and scale of the pandemic’s disruption. Not only would the UK economy suffer, but profound disturbance would also be felt in the UK’s efforts to drive forward the ever-pressing goals of global climate governance.

The unfolding crisis has, however, also provided a unique opportunity to embrace ambitious climate action. Boris Johnson has promised to “build back greener” and instigate a “green recovery” to rebuild and decarbonise Britain’s economy. Using investment to both create jobs and prepare the country to hit the Government’s 2050 net zero carbon target, an opening has been created to instigate a bold climate future for Britain.

Recent pledges from the Government indicate they will be paying more than lip service to the green recovery. Back in July, £3 billion of green investment was announced to improve the energy efficiency of homes and public sector buildings, and a Green Jobs Challenge fund was recently set up to provide £40 million to green charities improving England’s ecological habitats. 

Not only does the scale of this investment represent a qualitative step up from the UK’s previous climate action, but the presentation of such investment as a means for job creation shows the growing acceptance that climate action can be a powerful tool for achieving economic prosperity, rather than merely a policy burden.

Despite the expansion in ambition, these pledges are still not the panacea that the Government believes them to be. For one, the investments are comparatively minor in relation to Germany’s £36 billion green economic recovery package and the vast climate pledges of other European states. 

Improving the energy efficiency of UK homes is vital to curtailing Britain’s carbon emissions – with household heating accounting for around 20% of all carbon output in the country – but the Government’s plans to retrofit 600,000 homes with energy efficient insulation, double glazing, and doors is unlikely to significantly dent the country’s projected emissions.

More important is how the Government, and future governments, pursue productive climate action. Focus should not only be placed on decarbonising the British economy, but spreading the benefits of environmental protection to communities nationwide. Like all large-scale economic initiatives, the transition to a net zero economy risks creating winners and losers, and steps must be taken to ensure those industries on the losing end of the transition are not hung out to dry. 

Despite demonstrable public support for government investment in a green COVID recovery, popular backing for all green policy measures is not guaranteed. The Gilet Jaunes protests in response to President Macron’s proposed increase in carbon taxes in 2018 acutely demonstrate the potential for public opposition to climate policies that are perceived as unfairly burdensome on the poorest members of society. 

Failure to account for the social implications of climate policies will leave governments facing greater, and entirely avoidable, opposition to decarbonisation policies. A joint declaration made at COP24 in 2018 stated it best: “Considering the social aspect of the transition towards a low-carbon economy is crucial for gaining social approval for the changes taking place.”

The transition to a net zero economy must therefore consider the distributional fallout of decarbonisation. In the UK, this means accounting for regional disparities between the North and South of England. With the North still the centre of Britain’s fossil fuel industry – accounting for over a quarter of the UK’s electricity generating capacity – it faces more business closures and deeper unemployment than other regions of the country. The UK must anticipate and plan for these negative impacts of decarbonisation.

The UK can do this by creating a regional commission and associate fund to coordinate public investment and attract private enterprise to those communities most vulnerable to the economic instability caused by decarbonisation. A localised commission is best placed to identify those communities and industries at threat, recognise their economic strengths that can be leveraged in the future green economy, and inform how investment in green industries and green job creation should be distributed to reach those areas most in need.

A similar commission has already proved effective in Scotland. The ‘Just Transition Commission’, established in 2018, advises Scottish Ministers on how to invest in environmentally and socially sustainable jobs while creating opportunities that address poverty. The commission has identified Scottish-specific problems in the energy transition, and advanced recommendations tailored to Scotland’s industries and geography. For example, the commission has advised on how the expansion of Scotland’s offshore wind sector should be accelerated to negate the economic instability caused by decommissioned North Sea oil rigs.

The potential is significant. A report last year found that coordinated efforts between local authorities and businesses could grow the north’s economy by 15% by 2050 and create an additional 100,000 jobs in the process. Crucial to this, though, is encouraging investment in the region and ensuring corporations do not overlook the north as a serious contender for green industries.

Regional commissions do not guarantee success. Local bureaucracy can slow progress and the creation of another commission strains public finances, but if the Government is serious about using public investment to kick-start a green recovery, as its recent announcements indicate, it should look to regional expertise to ensure investments are provided to those industries that need it the most.

This dual commitment to environmental and social sustainability should be familiar to the Government. The UK signed the ‘Just Transition Declaration’ along with 53 other countries at COP24. Now is the time to act on this promise and implement policies capable of addressing both the climate emergency and social priorities.

Callum is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Number 10]