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Green Day, the cult 90s band, was named after its members’ enjoyment of pot. A green day in California was apparently a day spent lazing around smoking dope.

The UK government is planning its own Green Day. This involves less marijuana (presumably) and more details on the UK’s plans to get to net zero. But the lethargic pace of the UK’s climate action of late makes Green Day an entirely fitting name.

Ministers haven’t roused themselves spontaneously to update the country on their climate plans. The government is legally obliged, by the end of March, to update its strategy for reaching net zero by 2050 after a court last year found that the plans were incomplete and lacked sufficient detail to meet obligations under the 2008 Climate Change Act. It also needs to respond to the net zero review by Conservative politician Chris Skidmore. A long-awaited green finance strategy could form part of the announcement too.

What won’t is loads of new money, certainly nothing to rival the $369bn in subsidies and tax breaks in the US Inflation Reduction Act. This month’s budget was climate-light, to put it politely. The ambition to capture 20mn-30mn tonnes of carbon dioxide annually by 2030 was an old one and the £20bn for it arrives after the next election. Warm words on nuclear energy came with little cold hard cash.

The tendency towards long-term, grandiose climate targets over immediate spending and action is well documented here. Despite the obvious appeal of energy efficiency from both a climate and cost of living perspective, the Treasury didn’t bring forward any of the £6bn slated for the next parliament. Skidmore, who at a recent event called the UK the “poor man in Europe” in energy efficiency thanks to its “crap housing, really crap housing”, played down the prospect of fresh funds being rustled up for the net zero effort later this month.

The best substitute for cash would be something also in short supply: proper policymaking competence. In terms of the emissions cuts required in the fifth carbon budget period (from 2028 to 2032), only 28 per cent is covered by confirmed policy, according to think-tank Green Alliance: over a third is under consultation, nearly a quarter is just policy ambition and 13 per cent has no policy at all. Sectors like transport and agriculture fare considerably worse.

Even rules already in the works seem likely to be delayed: a consultation on minimum energy efficiency standards in private rented accommodation closed two years ago but has never been followed up with a response or detailed rules. Landlord bodies are lobbying for the first 2025 deadline to be pushed back. This, like the mystery of how the government plans to hit its targets on heat pump installation, holds back private spending and stymies the development of the companies, supply chains and skilled workers that will ultimately be required.

The business world is increasingly desperate for clearer policy and better planning: the CBI in 2021 warned that the lack of a framework for hydrogen, such as a contracts for difference scheme, was holding back investment, since when nothing has happened. Think-tank E3G reckons the UK has policies to underpin just 16 to 22 per cent of investment needed to reach net zero, and wants an independent body to crunch the numbers and identify gaps.

The only real alternative to megabucks in jump-starting investment is rules and fixed, mandatory deadlines. “Regulation plays a powerful role in driving investment”, says Ed Matthew at E3G. “If Conservatives want rapid growth in the net zero economy, they need to use the power of regulation to deliver it.”

It isn’t all restrictions and red tape: the number one complaint from the renewables sector is the planning system, a prime opportunity to deregulate if ever there was one. Similarly, faster grid connections require streamlining bureaucracy, not adding to it. But it is an awkward situation for a government that still tends to frame “business friendly” as staying out of the way.

Outcompeted on cash in the race for green investment, the UK’s best option to keep up may be as an efficient and aggressive regulator — something the government needs to come to terms with, before we all get totally baked.

helen.thomas@ft.com
@helentbiz

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