The public health emergency caused by the covid-19 pandemic has produced one of the largest ever shocks to the UK economy. It has stretched the UK’s health and social care systems, has plunged businesses into crisis and is likely to lead to levels of unemployment not seen in decades. As the vaccine roll-out progresses and attention turns to the UK’s recovery, the focus must be on how to grow back better, creating a greener, healthier and more resilient economy.
The covid-19 crisis must be treated as a wake-up call. It is a symptom of a growing ecological emergency. Its emergence is linked to the illicit trade in wildlife and humanity’s growing encroachment on the natural world. The way in which the UK and other nations respond to the global economic downturn, and the stimulus that national governments direct to recovery efforts, will be pivotal in determining whether the goals of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Paris Agreement on climate change will be met. Climate scientists advise that a very limited time window is left to slow the build-up of emissions in the atmosphere and thereby limit the increase in global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius. If the economic recovery from covid-19 is not used as an opportunity to ‘grow back better’, then climate change and biodiversity collapse may deliver an even greater crisis. There will be no vaccine against runaway climate change.
Fortunately, many of the solutions necessary to halt biodiversity loss and slow climate change will spur innovation, create hundreds of thousands of jobs and make the economy and society more resilient to future crises. Billions of pounds of investment are needed to put nature into recovery and decarbonise industries, transport and buildings. This investment will provide economic multipliers in terms of jobs, together with wider benefits such as cleaner air and warmer homes. There are also considerable competitive economic opportunities for the UK in leading the world in a low carbon—green—industrial revolution.
Considerable progress has been made in moving to clean electricity generation in the last decade, but the UK is lagging in introducing measures to decarbonise transport, industry and buildings. In common with many other nations, by the end of 2020 the UK had signally failed to meet most of the Aichi targets to protect wildlife, habitats and eco-systems. Many of the green initiatives the Government has introduced as part of its economic recovery packages are welcome, but do not go far enough. The Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution points in the right direction. The Sovereign Green Bond and National Infrastructure Bank provide important mechanisms for financing transition. The Government must use the UK’s post-crisis economic recovery stimulus as an opportunity to accelerate investment on nature recovery, climate adaptation and cutting emissions to net zero. The speed at which coronavirus vaccines have been developed shows how rapidly scientific progress can be made when efforts are concentrated and urgent. That same level of urgency to developing and deploying solutions to the climate crisis needs to be applied to an economy stalled by the effects of the pandemic.
Infrastructure invested in now will be in use for decades to come. It is essential that all decisions on infrastructure investment are considered with regard to UK net zero targets, impacts on biodiversity and future projections for changes in climate likely to affect the UK. The Government must ensure that its ‘build, build, build’ agenda delivers truly sustainable development with low-carbon homes fit for a changing climate. The Government should develop embodied carbon targets for new homes to increase demand for more sustainable building materials. Investment in energy efficiency and other areas needs to be front loaded as much as possible in order to produce short-run economic multipliers, stimulating the economy and creating jobs.
Air pollution has been linked to higher covid-19 mortality rates. Active travel infrastructure for walking and cycling in towns and cities must be a priority to clean the air we breathe, cut carbon and improve our health and fitness. The Government’s road building programme must be rigorously assessed against the UK’s air quality, biodiversity protection and climate change targets before individual projects proceed.
The net zero transition and the switch to electric vehicles being driven by Government policy will require the introduction of cutting-edge manufacturing processes in UK automotive industries to manufacture electric vehicles and their batteries. Up to eight so-called ‘gigafactories’ will need to be built. To support the accelerated uptake of ultra-low emission cars in the UK, further tax incentives should be introduced to make these vehicles more affordable.
The Chancellor must use the Budget on 3rd March as a springboard to revive the UK economy and to kickstart the green industrial revolution. As the UK recovers from the immediate crisis, a shift towards green taxation could help direct investment into job-rich low carbon activity, shift behaviour and increase resource and energy efficiency. The Government should use the latitude it enjoys following the UK’s exit from the European Union to reduce rates of VAT on repair services and products containing reused or recycled materials to increase the circularity of the UK economy. The Government should also adopt a VAT reduction on home upgrades to incentivise installation of low-carbon domestic technologies and improve energy efficiency of homes. The Government should begin scoping work on a carbon tax and an accompanying border carbon adjustment tariff to incentivise low carbon changes across the economy.