UK’s coronavirus recovery should have green focus, Johnson urged

Restarting the economy and getting people back to work after the coronavirus lockdown should focus on low-carbon work programmes, the UK government’s climate advisers have urged.

They said this would generate new jobs, protect the climate and ensure a fairer economy for everyone.

People’s homes could be made ready for winter and new jobs created through schemes to insulate houses, while tree-planting could begin and flood barriers be constructed, the Committee on Climate Change advised Boris Johnson.

Fulfilling the UK’s need for low-carbon infrastructure, from electricity networks to cycle lanes, and restoring peatlands, would create jobs in the short term, while government money could also be used to encourage advances in science and innovation that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the future, the committee found.

The UK has a target of cutting emissions to net zero by 2050, but before the coronavirus crisis the government had set out few plans to achieve it. In a letter to the prime minister on Wednesday, the committee said combining the recovery from the lockdown with actions to cut emissions would be beneficial in the short and long term.

“Actions towards net-zero emissions and to limit the damages from climate change will help rebuild the UK with a stronger economy and increased resilience,” wrote the committee chair, Lord Deben, and the chair of the sub-committee on adaptation, Lady Brown.

More measures were needed to help people continue to walk, cycle and work remotely after the lockdown eases, the committee said. Increased cycling and walking would reduce the strain on public transport while keeping down air pollution, which people have become more aware of because of reduced road traffic.

The advisers also called for retraining programmes to equip people with skills such as installing low-carbon heating, energy and water efficiency, and flood protection for homes.

They said rescue packages for carbon-intensive sectors “should be contingent on them taking real and lasting action on climate change”, to avoid locking in high emissions for the future.

Fairness should be a “core principle” of any recovery, they advised. “The crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities and … the response to the pandemic has disproportionately affected the same lower-income groups and younger people who face the largest long-term impacts of climate change,” the chairs wrote.

“The benefits of acting on climate change must be shared widely and the costs must not burden those who are least able to pay, or whose livelihoods are most at risk as the economy changes. It is important that the lost or threatened jobs of today should be replaced by those created by the new resilient economy.”

The committee’s advice bolsters calls from other experts to “green” the economic recovery. On Tuesday, a group of leading economists, including the Nobel prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz, set out evidence that government spending on low-carbon and other environmentally beneficial activities would provide a bigger boost to the economy, in both the short and long term, than pursuing a traditional recovery that poured money into fossil fuels and ignored the climate crisis.

Quick guide UK government support for workers and businesses during the coronavirus crisis
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Income subsidies

Direct cash grants for self-employed people, worth 80% of average profits, up to GBP2,500 a month. There are similar wage subsidies for employees.

Loan guarantees for business

Government to back GBP330bn of loans to support businesses through a Bank of England scheme for big firms. There are loans of up to GBP5m with no interest for six months for smaller companies.

Business rates

Taxes levied on commercial premises will be abolished this year for all retailers, leisure outlets and hospitality sector firms.

Cash grants

Britain’s smallest 700,000 businesses eligible for cash grants of GBP10,000. Small retailers, leisure and hospitality firms can get bigger grants of GBP25,000.

Benefits

Government to increase value of universal credit and tax credits by GBP1,000 a year, as well as widening eligibility for these benefits.

Sick pay

Statutory sick pay to be made available from day one, rather than day four, of absence from work, although ministers have been criticised for not increasing the level of sick pay above GBP94.25 a week. Small firms can claim for state refunds on sick pay bills.

Other

Local authorities to get a GBP500m hardship fund to provide people with council tax payment relief.

Mortgage and rental holidays available for up to three months.

Green campaigners urged the government to heed the advice. Mike Childs, head of science at Friends of the Earth, said: “Improving people’s lives and saving the climate needs to be central to recovery, not rebuilding the profits of damaging industries. The right post-pandemic investment can push a big, positive, reset button on our carbon-guzzling and unsustainable economy and build a clean, healthy and fair world.”

Richard George, head of oil for Greenpeace UK, said: “When you have both the economy and the environment on the same side of the scales, the debate is over. The only question now is whether the government will listen to the experts and support a recovery package that protects our jobs, our health and our climate.”

Chris Venables, of the Green Alliance thinktank, said the coronavirus crisis was changing the public’s understanding of what is possible in terms of combating climate change, and changing people’s expectations of the government’s role in improving society.

“The recovery can change the way we think about public health and the health of the planet, whether that is preferring online connectivity to carbon-intensive travel, or making greater efforts to conserve forests and improve access to green spaces. In response to coronavirus, the government has taken decisive measures. Similar courage can lead us to a healthier world in recovery.”

In the letter, the committee reminded the prime minister of Britain’s role on the world stage. The UK will host the next UN climate talks, Cop26, scheduled for November but now postponed to next year. Johnson and the Cop26 president, the business secretary Alok Sharma, will be urging other countries to come forward with national plans to curb carbon.

Deben and Brown said the UK must show leadership by linking the economic recovery and the climate crisis.”Our credibility as an international leader rests on taking action at home,” they said.

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