In the lead-up to Cop26 in November, Boris Johnson was at his most panglossian as he extolled the economic benefits of the country’s transition to net zero. “The UK’s path to ending our contribution to climate change,” the prime minister forecast, “will be paved with well-paid jobs, billions in investment and thriving green industries … by moving first and taking bold action, we will build a defining competitive edge in electric vehicles, offshore wind, carbon capture technology and more.”
Back in the real world, matters stand rather differently. Far from forging ahead of the rest, Britain risks falling behind in the new industrial revolution, as latest figures from the Office for National Statistics make depressingly clear. The green economy more or less flatlined between 2014 and 2020, the ONS found. Employment in the low-carbon and renewable energy sectors – which include manufacturing, energy supply and construction – actually fell. This dismal state of affairs predated the Covid pandemic and the accompanying recession.
The present administration cannot be blamed for the poor performance of its Tory predecessors, but it is signally failing to learn from their mistakes. Windy rhetoric is not enough. To a far greater extent, the state must play a strategic role in shaping and investing in the green economy. In the renewable energy sector, a reliance on importing turbines and other components means that too many of the well-paid “green-collar” jobs to which Mr Johnson refers are located abroad. Similarly, the government’s instinctive aversion to state intervention has led to a failure to properly invest in a green future for the steel industry. Green steel will be fundamental to a net zero economy, but as Stephen Kinnock, the Labour MP for Port Talbot, has pointed out, other countries are leaving the UK behind in the race to modernise. A national retrofit programme is urgently needed to increase energy efficiency in people’s homes. But the government’s reluctance to adequately pump-prime a nascent market means another chance to secure good jobs linked to the green transition is being squandered.
Sadly, the government’s ideological direction of travel is towards less, not more, intervention. As Mr Johnson attempts merely to survive in office following partygate, influential sections of his party are determined to force his administration to adopt a still more laissez-faire approach. Last week, the prime minister’s new chief of staff, Stephen Barclay, suggested that in the wake of the pandemic, it was time to for the government to “step back” from people’s lives. The Treasury’s determination to rein in public spending post-Covid signals that necessary green subsidies and investment will not be forthcoming, and the cost-of-living crisis is being used by Conservative backbenchers such as Steve Baker to present the green agenda as an expensive imposition on the less well-off. Welcome developments, such as £100m of government money for a car battery manufacturing startup in Blyth, are too small-scale and too ad hoc.
Last week’s ONS report must be a wake-up call. An enormous opportunity risks being wasted through a combination of misplaced ideology, blinkered short-termism and lack of strategic imagination and ambition in Whitehall. In the parts of the country that suffered most from ruthless and precipitate deindustrialisation in the 1980s, the path to net zero can be a catalyst for renewal. The state, the private sector, trade unions and local communities can deliver this by working together. But only if the scale of Johnsonian rhetoric is matched by deeds.