Boris Johnson does not want a crisis to go to waste. The coronavirus-induced recession is widely accepted as an opportunity to reset and rebuild the economy to take the environmental challenge seriously. Radical green policies that once seemed impossible – such as shutting down airports and closing off roads – have been implemented overnight with public support. Now that the economy is reopening, Mr Johnson’s political goal is to produce policies that chime with the nation’s mood. He says he will “build back greener”. What Mr Johnson’s phrase means for the country will only become clear when his policies emerge.
His government’s first big announcement is a small step in the right direction. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, will incentivise home insulation with a GBP2bn grant scheme so that homeowners can decrease the amount of heat lost through roofs, walls and floors. This will bring jobs back to local economies, with companies providing a labour-intensive service in a post-Covid-19 world suffering from extremely high levels of unemployment.
Mr Sunak’s cash ought to reverse the decline since 2012 in the rate at which energy-efficiency measures are being installed in homes. Time is running out for Mr Johnson to act if he is serious about the climate crisis. Energy use in homes accounts for about 14% of UK climate-altering emissions – and this figure is rising. Without a reduction in the amount of energy used to heat homes and a switch to cleaner fuels, it would be almost impossible for the UK to meet its legally binding target to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
This is progress, but not as much as is required. Only a quarter of Mr Sunak’s cash is focused on the poorest, so people wealthy enough to insulate their homes will be subsidised to do so. The scheme is just for a year, and it is unclear whether the government sees this as a down payment on a long-term programme or whether this is a one-off stimulus. The former would imply Mr Johnson is serious about the climate emergency; the latter would mean he is only interested in looking like he is serious about it.
The prime minister must not repeat the failure to respond to the last recession, when investment was not scaled up to meet climate targets. The New Economics Foundation calculates that if just a third of the funds used for tax cuts between 2010 and 2013, which disproportionately benefited the richest households, were instead deployed as part of a home insulation programme, residential emissions would have been 30% lower in 2018.
The future presents favourable circumstances for a green-minded government. Mr Johnson ought to exploit the fact that the demand for travel is likely to have been permanently reduced, because people have learned during the crisis to use home-working technology. He should drop plans for GBP28bn worth of new roads. The investment should be switched to a green stimulus to generate jobs as the UK accelerates towards its net zero goal.
Mr Johnson has talked of a “new deal” and he could take up the suggestion by the Common Wealth thinktank to legislate for a green recovery act to drive an economic revival with renewable energy at its core. The prime minister has plans for nationwide electric vehicle charging points and to put some cash towards hydrogen production and carbon capture. But if Mr Johnson wants to permanently shift the UK on to a trajectory to meet its climate targets, he must deliver a new zero-carbon infrastructure. Without this ambition and the cash to back it up, he cannot claim to be building the UK “back greener”.