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The prime minister’s speech fell short of signalling a post-coronavirus “green recovery”

Boris Johnson has promised to “build back greener”, but his speech offered little detail

Boris Johnson has promised to “build back greener”, but his speech offered little detail compared to the ambitious green stimulus packages announced by other countries, says Tom Sasse

Like many leaders around the world, Boris Johnson has said he wants to secure a “green recovery”. As the independent Committee on Climate Change said in its annual report last week, doing so is essential if the UK is to meet its target of net zero emissions by 2050 and become more resilient to the impacts of a changing climate.

But the government is already a long way off track in both areas. The prime minister’s speech, in which he set out his vision for the UK’s economic recovery, was a chance to set out the policies to match his pitch. But it contained precious little to back up his ambition for the recovery to be a green one.

It was a missed opportunity, with leaders in other countries already setting out bold green stimulus packages from which the UK could learn.

“Build, build, build”… but not much “green”

On a rhetorical level, Johnson’s speech was tinged with green flourishes. He pledged to deliver “flood defences to protect our land” and “woodland to recharge and enchant the soul”. Standing in what appeared to be a half-built house, he said the UK would build “beautiful low carbon homes, like this one”. There was some money for zero carbon buses and new cycleways; and the PM said he wants the UK to deliver the world’s first commercial zero emission commercial plane (“Jet Zero”).

But these phrases were at the margins and not part of the core narrative of the speech, such as there was one. The prime minister focused instead on public services and construction projects, and made several concrete funding commitments: £1.5bn for hospitals this year, £1bn for schools and £900m for a range of targeted “shovel ready” projects.

However, there was no detail on the big infrastructure challenges that the UK must tackle to get to zero carbon. There have been growing cross-party calls, for example, for a large national retrofit strategy to insulate the UK’s draughty homes. This is a key area where government lacks a plan – but it has been suggested that a £9bn manifesto commitment is being blocked by Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, who considers insulation “boring”.

Other countries have been more ambitious with their plans for "green recoveries"

Other world leaders have put a “green recovery” at the heart of their programmes to rebuild their economies after coronavirus – and brought forward key decisions about low-carbon transition.

In Germany, the government announced a 130bn euro plan of which 40bn euro has been earmarked for green projects. That includes 9bn euro for developing low-carbon hydrogen – a big signal about how it plans to power its economy – and 8bn euro for electric vehicles, helping transformation in the German automotive sector. Angela Merkel, the chancellor, emphasised decisions on stimulus funding would be forward-looking, with a focus on support for modern technologies and renewable energies.

France has attached “green strings” to its bailout for businesses. Air France, for example, will have to contribute to halving domestic CO2 flight emissions by 2025, which is likely to mean no domestic flights will be operated where a rail journey of 2.5 hours or less could be taken instead. Canada has taken a similar approach, requiring all companies receiving bailout funding to publish specified climate information annually.

The chancellor will need to bring forward more detail on a green stimulus

The prime minister stressed in his speech that his focus was on creating jobs and helping those “left behind”. Those ambitions are worthy, but they should not be seen as being in tension with a green recovery. As the CCC was careful to stress last week, there is growing consensus from the World Bank, CBI and other economists that green stimulus measures are amongst the most effective ways to create the sustainable jobs and growth needed across the country to escape the recession.

Meanwhile, the Climate Assembly’s interim report and recent polling, both published this week both suggest the public support an economic recovery that delivers net zero – and place high importance on environmental measures.

All eyes will now be on the chancellors’ statement in July, and the National Infrastructure Strategy due later this year, for policies and funding that match the government’s ambition for a green recovery. The Green Alliance has estimated that £14bn of additional funding for green infrastructure is needed each year to get the UK on track for net zero.

At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Rishi Sunak promised to do “whatever it takes” to address the economic crisis. It will take more than what was set out in prime minister's speech to tackle the climate crisis.



Net zero
Climate change
Johnson government
Public figures
Boris Johnson
Institute for Government

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