Rain Newton-Smith: Building a low carbon society is a big challenge and a huge economic opportunity
Business backs net zero. We just need Parliament to ramp up the pace of change and implement critical policies, writes Rain Newton-Smith
Public demand for action on climate change is clear. Polling from YouGov during the 2019 general election showed that more than one in four voters (27%) rank the environment in their top three issues – behind Brexit and health, and on a par with crime and the economy.
So, it is only right that the UK Government has set its ambition to reach net zero emissions by 2050. But there is no time to lose. The business community is acutely aware of its role in delivering the switch to cleaner energy and low carbon technology, and has wholeheartedly backed this target.
Now is the time for action. The new Parliament must ramp up the pace of change and implement critical policies.
The good news is that companies have already built strong foundations, through long-term reductions in emissions and CO2 by switching from coal to gas while expanding renewables and getting the best out of nuclear power.
As a result, since 1990, we have cut carbon emissions by 40% while growing the economy more than 75%; a remarkable feat not matched by any other G7 country. Yet tackling the climate emergency needs further, and faster, action than ever before.
We need to grow supplies of low carbon electricity, rapidly reduce transport emissions, and make progress on decarbonising heat in our homes, businesses and industry. That is not a change any business or individual can make alone.
Business is already playing a vital role in delivering this economic and social transformation. But unless we can work in partnership with politicians and the public, our efforts will be left dangerously lacking.
“We already have the solutions – we just need to get on and build them”
Let’s begin by building on what works, like contracts for offshore wind driving down prices to record low levels. A fourfold increase in low carbon electricity is needed to power our economy, together with progress on new nuclear, onshore wind and other renewables. We already have the solutions – we just need to get on and build them.
The 2020s also require a transport revolution. Shifting to electric vehicles is already under way and will accelerate through the coming decade. The Government can help by better coordinating the roll-out of rapid electric vehicle chargers, so people have confidence in switching to cleaner cars.
We also need to get serious on heat, with deliverable plans to replace the UK’s 24 million gas boilers with more sustainable and energy efficient solutions, such as heat pumps and hydrogen boilers.
Achieving real progress will require an honest conversation between the public, Government and business about changes we all need to make. Central to this will be supporting the jobs and livelihoods of people affected by the transition, including reskilling, and reducing energy costs for struggling families.
The business community backs this approach and is a crucial part of the solution. Creating new technologies means that we can cut our carbon emissions – improving our environment and ending the injustice of poor air quality.
The other side of this coin is the huge economic opportunity presented by the global shift to a low carbon future. We can lead on new technologies, including carbon capture and hydrogen energy, and export these products and services around the world.
We also need to reduce our emissions without making them someone else’s problem. We believe it’s time for the Government to include both production and consumption emission rates in its official greenhouse gas figures. It would be a radical new way to measure growth and, crucially, focus minds on our net zero goal.
Glasgow’s hosting of COP26 next November should showcase the UK’s net zero actions and spur us to work with other countries on this global challenge. We need to ensure 2020 is a year of action in the UK that kickstarts a decade of global delivery on climate action. It’s an opportunity we cannot afford to lose.
Rain Newton-Smith is chief economist of the CBI