Boris Johnson’s comfort zone is the future. He is weak at managing the day-to-day business of a government and bad at making hard choices quickly. For that reason, he is poorly suited to the role of prime minister during a pandemic, but better at the job of selling a “green industrial revolution” for the recovery phase.
The launch on Wednesday of a 10-point plan for net zero carbon emissions allowed Mr Johnson to indulge his predilection for hyperbole. He wants Britain to be the “world’s number one centre for green technology and finance” and “the Saudi Arabia of wind”. Those are fine aspirations. Regular readers of Mr Johnson’s rhetoric know to check the small print.
Some of the sums of money involved do not stand up well to international comparison. The headline investment pledge is GBP12bn, much of which has been announced previously. Earlier this year, the German government announced a EUR40bn (GBP36bn) green recovery package. France has earmarked EUR30bn for green projects within a wider stimulus package. US president-elect Joe Biden has talked about a climate plan worth $2tn, although the comparison there is harder to make given the disparity in scale of country and economy.
It is churlish to judge Mr Johnson’s move exclusively in cash terms. Money matters, but so does the message that Britain wants to be part of the global trend towards carbon-neutrality. That sends important signals to business about future markets, especially when the government also talks about a more activist industrial policy. It is significant also as a marker of difference between the UK Tories and US Republicans who are steeped in climate-denial. The right wing of British politics has its share of ideological fellow-travellers with Donald Trump, so it is reassuring that Mr Johnson has chosen the path of believing in climate science and recognising that action affords economic opportunities.
That latter point is crucial. The prime minister is right to frame the response in terms of job creation. The cause of environmentalism in British politics has suffered from the misperception that it is a middle-class lifestyle affectation or a device to raise taxes. The reality is that the transition to a green economy is not a matter of choice, since the alternative is ruinous ecological calamity. The meaningful question is how to capitalise on the advantages available for countries that plan the change strategically.
That is the question Mr Johnson asks with his 10-point plan, even if his answer is thin in places. The investment in carbon capture and storage; the development of hydrogen as a fuel; innovation in green aviation and shipping – these are aspirations camouflaged as concrete commitments.
There are notable omissions; onshore wind was not mentioned, although it is much cheaper than the offshore version. Something should have been said about ending UK financial support for fossil fuel projects overseas. There have been hints of announcements to that effect, but no action. More detail will be needed on how to effect a massive expansion of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. That is essential for achieving the target of ending sales of new diesel and petrol cars by 2030.
A white paper is due by the end of the year, which should fill some of the gaps in the lofty rhetoric. The danger is that Mr Johnson underestimates the amount of work required to deliver his plans, or transfers his interest to some other political totem. That would be true to form. The ambition to preside over a green industrial revolution is the right one, but with the current prime minister there is no guarantee that it will evolve beyond laudable intent. The goal should be applauded, but vigilant attention needs paying to the small print, and pressure applied to do more and act faster.