A real plan to build back greener would start with guaranteeing sufficient investment to ensure that all new homes are zero-carbon homes.
Boris Johnson’s claim that the UK is building back greener – based on a mere £160m additional for offshore wind – is very much overblown.
At the last general election, the Green Party called for £100bn per year of investment over 10 years to transform the UK into a truly zero-carbon society. This was a holistic programme with proposals to upgrade our transport system, massive investment in domestic retrofit, making the Passivhaus standard for energy efficiency the norm for new homes, and with investment in our industrial and agricultural sectors to build a circular economy and help reap the rewards of using our land as a carbon sink.
At the time there was very little criticism of this proposal, none of the usual cries of “unrealistic”. It was what was required to do the job. Other parties could not effectively criticise it nor sadly could they match it. And the huge gap between the size of investment announced today and the Green Party’s ambition makes it clear that the government is not serious about putting us on a path to achieving the Paris climate goals.
A real plan to build back greener would start with guaranteeing sufficient investment to ensure that all new homes are zero-carbon homes. This is about taking action appropriate for a climate emergency, sure, but it is also about ending the scandal of thousands of winter deaths because of cold, a tragedy that happens every year in one of the richest countries in the world.
Far from committing to this, the government’s planning white paper pushes this ambition back to 2050. The government’s Green Homes Grant is welcome but the £2bn, while sizeable, comes nowhere near meeting the cost of upgrading our leaky and damp housing stock, and again relies on the private market to deliver. In an emergency we expect the government to step in as it did in the Covid-19 crisis with publicly financed and managed schemes run by properly funded local authorities.
As a Green politician I certainly find the prime minister’s newfound enthusiasm for offshore wind welcome, if two decades late. Given that offshore wind is now the cheapest way of generating electricity and the UK is not short of that resource, this energy U-turn by the Conservatives can only help reduce CO2 emissions. But again this is following the market rather than showing political leadership.
Offshore wind is a winner in climate and commercial terms, but government leadership would mean support for a broader and wider range of renewables including solar PV, solar thermal, hydro, tidal, and renewable heat technologies.
Where we need government intervention is in the more politically challenging parts of our energy transition, like onshore wind which has languished since the Conservative government excluded it from the Contracts for Difference subsidy scheme in 2017 and allowed its local councillors to raise impossibly high barriers to new wind farms through the planning system.
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This is where the government should show leadership, as the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland are doing. As we’ve seen with the Covid-19 response, a government that centralises power and trusts the market will fail. The green energy transition will only succeed if the government works with local government, making local authorities real partners in action on climate change and involving them fully in the plans to achieve our Paris climate goals.
Although the prime minister’s words sound revolutionary they were carefully chosen. Promising to ensure that all homes are powered by electricity is one thing; decarbonising our transport and industrial systems quite another. Where is the proposal to defund the roads programme and reinvest that money in active travel, and local and regional public transport?
And where are the plans to upgrade the grid so that the electricity produced by the new wind farms can find its way to people’s homes, and the storage capacity needed to balance that grid? It is this sort of unglamorous infrastructure that lies at the heart of a green new deal and it needs to be done now.
As Greens we must count it as progress that a Conservative prime minister chose to place renewable energy at the heart of his conference speech. But for a government that likes short slogans here is another one: rhetoric is not delivery. With the Amazon on fire and the Arctic melting we all hope this is a genuine conversion and that Johnson’s claim that he is “building back greener” is more than hot air blowing through the blades of an offshore wind turbine.
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