Prime Minister Boris Johnson has heralded a new 'green industrial revolution' with the announcement of a new 10-point plan to address environmental issues facing the UK.
The plan contains a mixture of new and previously-announced initiatives. Some of the proposals have been welcomed more warmly than others, both by environmental groups and by industries. They are as follows:-
1. The ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars has been put forward to 2030, some ten years sooner than previously planned. Some hybrid vans and cars (which use a smaller and more efficient petrol engine, boosted by a battery-powered electric motor) will be able to be sold until 2035. This move has been welcomed by broadly environmental groups, but some questions remain, including how the charging infrastructure can be delivered in time and how heavy goods vehicles are going to be powered by electric motors rather than diesel engines. Global lithium stocks (required for making batteries) are also finite. £1.3 billion has been allocated to provide new charging points for electric vehicles, but doubts have been expressed as to whether this is going to be enough. Getting people to reduce their dependence on cars as well as switching to electric vehicles would possibly offer a better solution in the long term.
2. £1 billion will be made available in 2021, to be split between helping people insulate their homes and install green heating technology like heat pumps under the existing green homes grant; and insulating public buildings under the public sector decarbonsation scheme. Heat pumps are much costlier than gas boilers, with some costing over £10,000. They don't provide as intense a heat as gas boilers, so homeowners will also have to think about maximising insulation to reduce heat loss and possibly fitting larger radiators to produce enough heat. All of this means that without either government subsidies or legal requirements to fit heat pumps, many will still choose cheaper options. A target has been set to install 600,000 heat pumps every year from 2028 onwards.
3. A further £200 million will be invested in carbon capture schemes. With carbon capture, the carbon emissions caused by burning fossil fuels are collected and stored under the sea in disused oil and gas fields, where they cannot contribute to climate change. A target has been set for removing 10 million tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2030. Whilst carbon capture has now been proven to work, a big question remains as to how it will be paid for.
4. Offshore wind energy capacity is to be quadrupled to 40 GW - enough to power every home in the UK - by 2030. This had already been announced. Whilst this is a very positive development, it is not without issues. The electricity grid is not yet ready for offshore wind on this scale and some environmentalists have raised concerns that a rush to offshore wind might cause harm to marine life. There are also some reservations over whether 40GW will actually be enough to power all of the UK's homes by 2030, because with increasing numbers of electric cars needing charging and with more homes heated by electric heat pumps, the demand for electricity will grow substantially.
5. An investment or £525 million is to be made for the creation of new, small nuclear reactors to provide zero carbon energy on a more local level. The only new nuclear power plant currently under construction in the UK is at Hinkley Point in Somerset. It has already been plagued with delays and rising costs and is likely to be the most expensive power source in the UK when it does finally begin producing electricity. Whilst the concept of small scale nuclear reactors has some promise, none are currently available for sale from any manufacturer.
6. A town (for which candidates are currently being sought) is to be powered by hydrogen by 2030. When hydrogen is burned, the by-product is water vapour. However, hydrogen is currently mostly produced as a byproduct of natural gas production, which is seen by some green groups as a means of keeping gas production going. The ideal would be to use excess energy from renewable sources like wind energy to create the hydrogen from water, but this is some way off. A target has also been set to have 5GW of hydrogen energy production by 2030. There is considerable uncertainty about the effects of producing large amounts of additional water vapour and the effects that this may have on the climate, given that water vapour is already the planet’s most abundant greenhouse gas.
7. A £20 million package of support has been committed to developing greener energies in shipping. Hydrogen fuel may provide the way forward for shipping, an industry whose emissions currently represent an increasing share of greenhouse gases.
And funding (as yet unconfirmed) is being provided for 'Jet Zero' - research into zero-emissions aircraft, but the precise details of this are yet to be revealed. Meanwhile, new research from Linnaeus University in Sweden has found that half of 2018's greenhouse gas emissions from flying were caused by wealthy frequent flyers, who made up just 1% of the world's population. Only 11% of people on the planet flew anywhere in 2018 and only 4% took a flight outside their own country. People in the US fly the most, with their aviation emissions greater than the combined emissions of the next 10 most emitting countries. Over 50% of the UK's population flew abroad at least once in 2018. A levy on frequent flyers has been proposed as a way to prevent a small number of people from racking up huge numbers of air miles each year, but so far has not been adopted by the government.
8. Moves to promote cycling, walking and the use of public transport, with no specific new initiatives announced yet. Making town and city streets more inviting to cyclists and pedestrians will almost certainly mean reducing the number of cars on the roads. The use of public transport has dropped massively during the Covid-19 pandemic and it may be difficult to encourage people to get back on trains and buses when the pandemic is over. So these aims all have their challenges to be overcome.
9. A pledge to make London 'the centre of green finance'. Investment in green technologies, by both companies and pension funds is growing and the government wants to see this trend continue and accelerate. A publicly funded green infrastructure bank might provide funding for the many changes required to buildings, transport, water and energy networks. The original Green Investment Bank only lasted a few years, but perhaps now is the time to give this idea another try.
10. Yearly tree planting of at least 30,000 hectares to promote the conservation of the natural environment. Tree planting provides a way of reducing carbon emissions in the long term. New environment land management contracts, which will replace EU subsidies for farmers in the UK have yet to be finalised, but it's clear that farmers will require incentives to plant more trees, while government bodies like Natural England need a funding boost tov ensure that the ambitious new plans can be achieved.
The government hopes that these new announcements will lead to 250,000 new jobs in green industries, with many of the new employment opportunities being created in the Midlands and the north of England, along with Scotland and Wales. The full cost of the initiatives in the announcement is thought to be around £12 billion, including £8 billion of new spending, according to the government. However, the Labour opposition has claimed that there is no more than £4 billion of new spending in the plans.
The new plans have received general approval from environmental groups, though some wanted the government to go further in making concrete commitments to meet Paris Agreement targets for 2030, while others think that the measures don’t go far enough or address other problems we still face.
Among the key questions remaining to be answered are the UK government's provision of investment in overseas oil and gas projects and its stated aims to enhance oil and gas production in the North Sea.
There is also no new provision for the protection and restoration of peat bogs, which lock carbon dioxide into the soil indefinitely. Trees soak up CO2 while they are alive, but release it back into the atmosphere when they rot. Peat bogs lock away carbon for thousand of years. A strategy to protect peat bogs has been promised, but so far this has not translated into any new legal protections.
The Citizens' Assembly on Climate Change thinks that meat eating will gradually reduce in the coming decades as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, half of all emissions from farmed animals come from beef cattle and sheep. Campaigners have suggested that the Prime Minister should take a lead by promising to eat less meat and encouraging others to do the same. This is yet to happen.