Is the government’s 10-point climate plan good enough?
A 10-point plan to tackle the climate emergency, published by a Boris Johnson-led government, would have been hard to imagine a couple of years ago. But here we are, amid a global pandemic and facing a chaotic break from Europe, with just such a plan.
The timing of this announcement is hardly accidental. Ahead of hosting the UN climate talks next year, and with the USA poised to re-enter the historic Paris Agreement under President-elect Biden, the government needs to be positioning itself as a leader in this field. The question is, does this plan do enough to tackle the climate emergency?
Banning new diesel and petrol cars by 2030. Friends of the Earth supporters have been pushing for this for some years now – cleaner cars equals cleaner air, as well as less carbon pollution. This announcement is a real win for people power, particularly against a backdrop of industry opposition. Well done Mr Johnson.
£1 billion next year to insulate homes and buildings. The government launched a Green Homes Grant scheme a few months back which, although it's facing teething problems, is a very good start. The Prime Minister has extended it for a year and chucked a bit more money in the pot. But to bring all housing up to scratch and combat fuel poverty, this needs to be a 10-year programme with much greater investment.
600,000 heat pumps a year by 2028. We need more energy-efficient homes and wider use (and accessibility) of eco-heating options if we're to meet climate targets. We need heat pumps, so we can abandon the use of gas-fired boilers. 600,000 a year by 2028 sounds a lot, but given we need to fit 10 million by 2030 this pledge clearly falls well short.
Quadruple offshore wind power. This promise was made in the Conservative Party manifesto at the last election, and we welcomed it then. Offshore wind is great: there’s huge potential resource around our coast, and the winds blow most of the time out at sea, making this a very dependable source of affordable energy. But as we increasingly use electricity to heat our homes and power our vehicles, we also need much more onshore wind and solar power. Right now, onshore wind is being held back by a planning regime biased against it, and that needs to be addressed.
Invest an extra £200 million in carbon capture projects. For well over a decade Friends of the Earth has argued that we need carbon capture to decarbonise industry. But there's also a danger that this necessary investment is used as a trojan horse to allow the continued use of fossil fuels, or even increase their use (see below, on hydrogen). We need to move away from using fossil fuels, because even if we could capture all the carbon dioxide at the point of use (which we can’t), fossil fuel extraction still releases lots of greenhouse gases.
Promote more active travel. Electric cars are great, but they will still clog up our towns and cities. And although they're much cleaner than petrol and diesel, generating the electricity needed to power them still leads to some carbon pollution. As well as a switch to electric cars and vans, we also need to double the proportion of journeys made by cycling, walking and public transport. Mr Johnson has repeated his pledge to invest in segregated cycleways to make cycling safer. But we're light-years behind countries like the Netherlands and Denmark. The promise of £5 billion over 5 years just isn't enough. We should be spending £2 billion a year on cycling alone.
Boost hydrogen production. There’s a lot of hype around hydrogen at the moment, particularly amongst those that love the idea of technological fixes. It can be used instead of fossil fuels in some industries, and will have a use in long-distance transport where batteries aren't suitable. It can also be used to store the excess renewable energy produced in the summer, when the sun's shining and the wind's blowing, for use on darker windless winter days. Hydrogen can be made using renewable energy and water, but the fossil fuel companies are pushing to produce it from natural gas. Producing hydrogen from natural gas is much dirtier, but unfortunately it looks like the Prime Minister is going to back it.
Invest £525 million in new nuclear power. Margaret Thatcher famously promised to build 10 nuclear reactors across the UK, but only one was built because the economics were bonkers. The same is true today. In terms of price, renewable energy is half the cost of nuclear and getting cheaper. The argument about needing nuclear power to keep the lights on when the wind isn’t blowing doesn’t even hold water now that we have options such as hydrogen (see above) and batteries. Backing nuclear is backing a loser, and a dangerous one at that.
Support greener energy usage in the maritime and aviation industries. The most difficult sectors to decarbonise are aviation and shipping. We’ll need both well into the future, although we can curb their use somewhat. So, investment in greener fuels for these industries is welcome and important. But let’s not pretend that we’re going to have guilt-free flying soon – it'll be decades before that happens. In the meantime, politicians must accept that taxing frequent fliers is necessary to meet carbon reduction goals.
30,000 hectares of trees planted every year. Who doesn’t love trees? They're great for nature, they can keep our cities cool and hold back flood water in the uplands. Not to mention their impact on our wellbeing. Sadly, the UK has a paltry number of trees compared to our European neighbours. The government's target is half what's needed – we should aim to double tree cover in the UK to maximise the impact of their ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Growing more UK trees can also reduce timber imports, including from countries where environmental safeguards are poor and human rights abuses of forest communities are common.
A pledge to make London the “global centre of green finance”. A large part of the UK's wealth comes from dirty money, with the City of London financing environmentally damaging and socially harmful activities across the world. A plan to make London a centre of green finance is welcome, but unless it’s accompanied with a clean-up operation to stop bad financing, it'll be little more than greenwashing an industry desperately in need of a deep cleanse. Boris Johnson should've shown real intent by saying that the UK government will clean up its own act by abandoning plans to finance fossil fuel extraction overseas.
How to make an impact
Despite the positive moves to increase offshore wind capacity and create thousands of new green jobs, the plan just doesn’t go far enough to reduce emissions. Nor does it sufficiently tackle social inequalities like fuel poverty. And completely missing was any commitment to give local authorities the power and resources they need to transform the communities where we live.
But within the plan we can see how people power has made a difference.
Just look at the commitment to end the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030. A few years ago, that felt like mission impossible. But Friends of the Earth campaigned with supporters and community groups, pushing for more ambitious targets, and that’s now reflected in the government’s plan. For the communities around the country choking on dirty air, this is a huge win.
So, over the coming months, and with an eye to next May’s local and mayoral elections, we’ll be doubling down on our efforts to grow our grassroots network and lobby decision-makers at a national and local level. Together we can make a difference from local to global.
Join (or start!) a Climate Action group in your local area.
Join (or start!) a Climate Action group in your local area.