A green recovery for the UK?

30 June 2020

Interview with 

Chris Stark, Committee on Climate Change

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A wind farm.

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When it comes to tackling climate change, the pandemic can offer a kick out of complacency. Here in the UK, a group called the Committee on Climate Change has just reported to the government on how to organise a green economic recovery. Chief Executive of the CCC Chris Stark told Chris Smith what they're suggesting...

Chris Stark - Well, there's a window now to engineer the kind of recovery that might actually accelerate us towards the climate goals that parliament has set; and I very much agree with Corinne's earlier points. And so this is about supporting the economy. It's about creating jobs. That means we need things that can start in the next year to two years, we need to get the money cycling in the UK economy, and it's jobs, jobs, jobs - this is labor intensive stuff, things that can really boost employment. That's pretty standard advice. What's interesting, I suppose, about this moment is that we've also had an experience in the lockdown that gives us some sense of how society could change in the future. So there's a set of things that we might want to hold onto in particular, how we've worked and travelled over this lockdown period, that may actually help the climate goals. So what we said in our report this week to the government was that firstly, there are a set of infrastructure investments, which are the kind of classic stimulus: housing retrofits, investing in green spaces and nature, energy infrastructure investment. Things like flood defences, which we know we need because of climate change. Secondly, policies that actually support people to make those changes in lifestyle and in society, and that's about re-skilling and jobs, how we've been working, remote working especially, supporting that. And also the infrastructure that we need to walk and to cycle more. And lastly, there's a set of policies that we've recommended that will drive a faster pace of transition to lower emissions in the future. Those are things like the strings that the government might want to attach to any support they offer to business, especially high carbon businesses, things like airlines. And secondly, the chancellor I'm sure will be thinking about what he's going to do with the tax system. So they can have tax incentives that the chancellor might want to give to push us towards low carbon.

Chris Smith - What sorts of gains will this buy us? If the government takes your advice and these sorts of things that you're mapping out are implemented, where will this put us towards our goal of being net zero in 2050 and hitting what we've signed up to as our obligations to the Paris climate change agreement we've got to get our emissions down?

Chris Stark - So this can really move us on actually, I mean, we are the statutory body that gives advice to parliament every year on progress. And the report we published this week was not only recommending these policies, but also talking about the progress we've seen in the last 12 months. And it has not been in the right place. We've seen some things move on, but not nearly at the kind of pace that we'd need to be on track to the goals that parliament set last year.

Chris Smith - And why is that Chris? So if you've got these great ideas and you've written this report and this analysis, and you said to the government "you've now got the opportunity to do this", why are we so far behind on this? If we think we actually would get a better lifestyle out of this for implementing many of the things that you're proposing?

Chris Stark - Well, I think there's kind of several things going on. One is that we've had an unexpected election in the middle of last year which interrupted... I think there was some momentum towards a stronger set of policies but I would say that even still the policies were not in the right place. We've had a pandemic that hasn't helped clearly in the policy process, but I think there's also a kind of failure of genuinely kind of imagining how good this future could be. So I think this is the kind of interesting thing for me is that we come off the back of that election at the start of the year into a new parliament when all the main parties stood on a, kind of on a manifesto of doing something about this climate objective. And now I think we do need to start imagining how the future can happen and imagine how quickly, how much more quickly we can move to that kind of outcome through the recovery and the kind of things we've been suggesting would move us on substantively onto the kind of course that we'd need to be on to be on track for net zero emissions.

Chris Smith - But going back to my point, why is there this inertia? Because many of the things you've outlined are actually ingredients for what could be a healthier, happier lifestyle, a better environment, and many people - a report this week suggested half of people questioned said they'd actually quite enjoyed the lockdown or were enjoying some of the changes that they'd seen in their immediate environment because of the lockdown. Less noise, less pollution, less stress, less rush hour. We seem to think they're the ingredients of a green recovery. So why haven't we done this before?

Chris Stark - Well I mean, crucially, you need to ask the politicians that question, but I have a sense of why, why it might not be.

Chris Smith - But you must challenge them Chris, you must be saying to the politicians, here are my recommendations, what do they say to you?

Chris Stark - Of course. I mean, the key thing is that the scale of this is enormous. So I said the investments that are required really do challenge the government. And I think the other thing to say is that it's not often that we have the discussion we need to have about how lifestyles will change alongside this. My own view is that we don't need to be scared of any of that, but of course, for the government, they are more cautious. So I think the key thing that the role that we play is to point out that these are investments that must be taken. We have signed up to these targets. Parliament has mandated that, that we should achieve that target. This is a moment to really make those kind of investments. And actually you can make much more progress over the next 12 months than the last.

Chris Smith - Do you think that actually, because we're in a situation where we're spending money hand over fist, we think that this pandemic is costing the economy of just a country, the UK, a third of a trillion this year, that because they're spending so much money, actually now's the time to spend a bit more, do some of this stuff because actually doing some of this stuff that would have been a previous enormous cost can now actually be part of the ingredients for recovery?

Chris Stark - Well, absolutely. I mean, I think there was never actually an enormous cost to this. It can easily fit into the kind of investments we make each year. And now when we've got so much spare capacity in the economy and the government is needing to get the economy going, it's such an important thing to apply that green lens to the kind of investments that we'll be considering anyway, and really make a difference, not just on getting the economy going, but also getting us on the way to our climate goals in the UK. If we don't do that, it's going to be much, much harder in the future to reverse from it.

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