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Committee on Climate Change chair Lord Deben on why it would be ‘stupid’ not to use the coronavirus recovery to go for net zero

Lord Deben: “There is no other way of funnelling money more effectively than doing so in a way which makes us more resilient."

5 min read

As lockdown is lifted, ministers are grappling with how to safeguard the British economy amid forecasts of a crippling recession. Meanwhile, the promised “defining year of action” on climate change has slipped out of focus. But could the government ease the effect the pandemic and advance its climate goals in one fell swoop?

“The government is presented with an amazing opportunity here,” Lord Deben, chair of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) tells The House Live.

“It has to resuscitate the economy and it can only do that by undertaking measures which also will work towards combating climate change."

That’s the bottom line of the CCC’s annual report published on Thursday, which sets out ways in which the government can incorporate climate policies into its economic recovery. 

Set up under the 2008 Climate Change Act, the committee is an independent body tasked with advising the government on how it can cut emissions and mitigate damage to the environment.

And Lord Deben is confident in the body's latest guidance — telling ministers that ignoring it would “be such a stupid thing to do”. 

“There is no other way of funnelling money more effectively than doing so in a way which makes us more resilient,” the Conservative peer and former environment secretary says.

“What would be sensible in putting money into old industries which are also polluting ones?

"What you need to do first of all is things that get jobs and get the economy working again. And through that, you are also doing the things that you need for climate change.”


One such proposal that ticks both boxes is retrofitting Britain’s homes, while also ensuring that new housing is built to the highest standards of energy efficiency.

The change would reduce carbon emissions in the long-run, but can also create jobs and allow retraining in green industries.

And crucially, as Lord Deben explains, work on refitting houses can start “immediately” — making it a strong candidate for the Government's post-lockdown economic recovery plans.

The committee’s other recommendations are broad, touching most aspects of government.

They include investing in tree planting; restoring peatland; building green infrastructure for carbon capture and hydrogen power; improving recycling to promote a circular economy; and expanding fibre broadband. 

In the spirit of this cross-government approach, recommendations in the report have been broken down by Whitehall department for the first time.

The IPPR think tank this week called for a dedicated sustainability minister to bang heads together. 

But Lord Deben and the CCC back the Government's preferred option—a cabinet committee chaired by the Prime Minister.

“We have enthusiastically supported that, but we've said very clearly it has to meet every month and it has to be chaired by the Prime Minister," he says.

"Because that's the only way you will get to these changes that you need. This is an all government issue.”


While advising the government, the CCC is also tasked with tracking its progress towards net zero, and its failures.

The UK is set to miss its fourth and fifth carbon budget—the maximum emissions levels a country should aim for—which the committee helps set.

And the government’s record is also poor when it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change, the report says.

“We have been very clear that the government has done far too little, and far too late,” Lord Deben says.

“And not just this government. This is true of the Labour governments, of the coalition government and Conservative governments.

"We just have not taken the effects, the actual effects at the moment, of climate change seriously enough.”

Many of the measures proposed in Thursday’s report take this into account. Mass tree planting, for example, has been proven to reduce the impact of flooding and reduce local temperatures.

Such a policy has already been a success in Scotland — but wasn’t fully implemented in England.

In this regard, Lord Deben feels devolution could be a crucial tool in drawing up environmental policy.

“Parts of our great nation, countries like Wales, have done much better on some things, and we ought to learn from them," he says.

"Scotland has almost universally done better than the rest of the United Kingdom. And there are real questions about what could or ought to be done in Northern Ireland.

“One of the great strengths of the United Kingdom ought to be that we learn from each other. And one of the things I would like to see this Government do is recognising measures being best done in other nations."

Collaboration, both at home and abroad, is a crucial part of efforts to tackle climate change in Lord Deben’s view.

And he warns that the UK’s departure from the European at the end of this year could hinder such international coordination.

“I think we have to face the fact that leaving the European Union makes things much more difficult," he says.

"Many of the things we have to do, we have to do with our neighbours. For example, half the pollution that we have in Britain is blown over from them. And half the air pollution that we create in this country is blown over to the rest of Europe.

“So if you're going to have a proper solution policy, you've actually got to have a common one.

"There’s a whole range of things which are directly involved in the battle against climate change that are better done together.”

And as we leave the bloc, he warns ministers not to forfeit Britains role as a global leader on the environment.

The UK has long been at the forefront of the fight against climate change, but the CCC chair says  Brexit removes “a very important area in which our leadership can be felt”.

“It's extremely important that we up our game. That's why Britain's leadership is very important here,” he continues.

“The rich countries, even after COVID-19, have got to recognise that we have benefited from the pollution that has caused climate change.

"It's our fault. And we've become rich on its back. We have an absolute responsibility.”

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