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COP26 Put Environmentalism Centre Stage – the UK Must Now Seize the Opportunity for Radical Change

The UK should match European countries such as Germany in turning rhetoric into action, says Jon Bloomfield

Climate activists demonstrate outside COP26, in Glasgow. Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

COP26 Put Environmentalism Centre StageThe UK Must Now Seize the Opportunity for Radical Change

The UK should match European countries such as Germany in turning rhetoric into action, says Jon Bloomfield

Despite the shortcomings and disappointments of the United Nations COP26 international climate change conference in Glasgow, there is no doubt that the environmental movement has gained political momentum.

Those denying the existence of climate change are clearly now in retreat, while all governments are under growing pressure to strengthen their actions to deal with the crisis.

This crisis and the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic have both highlighted the importance of government power to deal with global challenges. The neoliberal right may not like it but, after four decades in absentia, government intervention and Keynesian economics are right back at the centre of the global political debate. So what does this mean for British politics?

The hard-right has consistently either denied or derided the realities of climate change. However, the weight of scientific evidence; the growing influence of popular environmental movements; and the increasing frequency of extreme climate events have combined to marginalise the climate-deniers and create a growing recognition across wide sections of business and centre-right politicians that there is now an urgent need to act.

Most sections of the business class, along with the Conservative leadership, have accepted the scientific evidence and shifted their politics accordingly – in contrast to their US Republican counterparts. Margaret Thatcher has won out over Nigel Lawson.

The UK Government has made clear its commitment to tackling climate change. Yet, Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan for climate change exudes a simplistic ‘technology fix’ model of innovation. These supply-side, techno-science fixes have considerable political appeal because they imply a minimal change to people’s everyday lives and behaviour.

Following in the footsteps of Bill Gates and Tony Blair, no one exemplifies this attitude better than Johnson. As the architect of ‘cake-ism’, he foresees a trouble-free transition where “we are going to build back greener without a hair shirt in sight”. 

Johnson’s strategy amounts to little more than state hand-outs to favoured industrial incumbents, which are proposing hi-tech solutions in a few limited areas.

The one proven area of success is offshore wind but elsewhere large chunks of capital are going on unproven technologies: to big companies which claim that they can safely capture and store carbon – despite 40 years of trying; or develop hydrogen at scale; or create new nuclear reactors.

The Prime Minister is attempting a bit of state pump-priming to release the animal spirits of capitalism and create a low carbon replica of today’s world. But this fails to grasp the overarching character of the climate crisis – the need for a comprehensive response, and the fact that this climate transition will involve significant changes in institutional, corporate and individual behaviour.

Labour’s criticisms have largely been about the size of the financial commitments, casting doubt on the seriousness with which the Government is addressing the issue. But the flaws in the Government’s position are far more fundamental than that.

UK Must Learn From Europe 

A glance at our counterparts across the Channel illustrates the point. 

In December 2019, the EU launched its European Green Deal, which proposed a comprehensive pathway to decarbonisation across all the key carbon-emitting areas. Last July, it agreed to a trail-blazing €750 billion programme to facilitate this green and digital transition, which is now starting to be rolled-out.

In Germany, the winners of September’s election are in discussions about how Europe’s most powerful economy can play its part. Last month, the Confederation of German Industry (BDI) offered a detailed blueprint for the country’s transition. 

As with the EU’s European Green Deal, the BDI has a breadth of vision in relation to the necessary transformation that stands in stark contrast to the UK’s narrow focus. Alongside that is the disparity in the amount of resources to be committed. The UK plan promises to mobilise £12 billion of government investment and spur over three times as much private sector investment by 2030. Implementing climate protection measures in Germany will require investments of about €860 billion by 2030, of which between €230 to €280 billion will be additional annual public spending. 

On the shift to low carbon transport, the UK Government predicts a network of more than 2,500 high-powered charging points on England’s motorways and major ‘A’ roads by 2030. By the same date, the BDI forecasts that Germany should have 240,000 fast charging points, along with five million charging points at the workplace and nine million private charging points at homes, as well as extensive improvements to its rail and public transport network. 

Even where the UK should out-perform Germany due to its island status, its targets lag behind. Boris Johnson claims that the UK shall be “the Saudi Arabia of wind”. By 2030, the UK aims to produce 40 GW of offshore wind. By the same date, the anticipated German figure is more than 65 GW of total wind power, on and offshore.

But it is in the low tech, less glamorous areas that the limitations of the UK are most apparent – particularly when it comes to solar and housing retrofit.

Solar is a proven technology and relatively low cost. It currently accounts for 4% of UK electricity capacity compared to 7% of Germany’s. The BDI envisages a three-fold increase in German solar capacity by 2030 with an additional 81 GW, reaching a total of 149 GW. The UK Government does not mention solar power in its plan. There is no big industrial conglomerate pushing its case; capacity has increased slowly over the past four years and currently stands at 14 GW. As the industry association Solar Energy discretely remarks in its latest report, “the Government currently does not have clear targets or strategies in place for delivering the amount of new onshore renewable energy required”. The easiest and simplest renewable energy source in the UK is effectively being sidelined and ignored by the Government.

Housing renovation is also a crucial arena because housing accounts for 20% of all CO2 emissions. The UK has a fairly miserable housing stock in terms of energy efficiency. Of its 28 million homes, 17 million (60%) are below ‘Energy Performance Certificate Grade C’. Improving the dreadful energy inefficiency of many homes and then removing their fossil fuel gas boilers will be a mammoth task over the next two decades.

The Government has run two programmes to tackle this issue in 2011-13 and 2020-21. Working on an individual household rather than on a neighbourhood basis, both have been monumental failures.

There remain no plans to re-skill the building trades; organise insulation and retrofit programmes on a housing action area basis; or set a target for the proportion of housing stock that will be renovated annually. The programme meekly announces that “we are setting an ambition of 600,000 heat pumps installations per year by 2028” but these are only effective in well-insulated housing. In contrast, the BDI sets a housing renovation rate of 1.9% per annum by 2030 with six million heat pumps and more than two million additional connections to district and area heating networks, using heat from combined power stations. 

Only in one area does the UK outperform Germany: on the rhetoric used to describe the changes. The UK asserts that “Britain will lead the world into a new Green Industrial Revolution”. In contrast, the BDI report soberly states that “Germany must undertake the greatest transformation in its post-war history”. It appears clear which approach is more likely to deliver substantial change.

Not Waiting but Acting

But COP26 showed the importance of sustaining the political momentum on climate change and maintaining pressure on governments. Rather than wringing hands in despair or waiting for a change of government, there are plenty of initiatives that citizens, organisation and companies can do now.

Across the country, there are hundreds of local community groups ready to take action. The need is to channel their energy and determination into positive action that drive the wheels of change. Focusing on the local level is a good place to start and there are countless initiatives to promote – new solar panel schemes, waste recycling, energy efficiency projects, or new cycling infrastructure.  

Then there is pressure on local councils to use their planning powers to insist that all new house-building in their areas will only be built to the highest energy efficiency standards.

Furthermore, campaigners should recognise that new tech opens new vistas. Digital platforms and applications offer simplified ticketing, real-time travel information, integrated transport options and cycle and vehicle sharing.  There is a vacancy for a 21st Century city mayor whose epitaph of platform socialism would be the modern equivalent of 19th Century Joseph Chamberlain’s municipal socialism.

More ambitiously, since Mark Carney has lined up all this capital for climate action from the banks and finance houses, they need to be lobbied too. Local councils and city region mayors should approach them for capital loans for whole neighbourhood energy efficiency and retrofit schemes to renovate Britain’s housing stock. If central government won’t provide the money, then the private sector should be asked, with local residents then consulted and engaged on the detail of the retrofit programmes.

The Scottish and Welsh Governments should do likewise, asking for backing for major renewable energy capital projects in wave power, wind and solar fields.

Finally, why doesn’t the Confederation of British Industry ‘s director General Tony Danker take a lead? Following his call for government intervention in his address to the CBI conference, he should commission a climate report like the CBI’s German counterparts and then get companies to act on its findings.

After COP26, momentum needs to be sustained and new opportunities for an energised environmental movement need to be seized. A politically-savvy, focused activism can maximise that potential and help to turn political declarations into practical realities.

Jon Bloomfield is an honorary research fellow at the University of Birmingham and the author with Fred Steward of ‘The Politics of the Green New Deal’. Together, they run a regular blog on the Green Deal

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