Climate change

Will the “green industrial revolution” succeed?

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Boris Johnson’s government wants to create a “green industrial revolution” and the first moves are already being made – the search for a nuclear fusion power plant site was launched last week. The government is planning to build the new power station by 2040, but immense technical challenges must first be overcome. The achievability of this project, as well as the wider environmental initiative outlined by Johnson recently, have been called into question repeatedly.

In highly simplified terms, traditional nuclear energy is derived from an almost unstoppable chain reaction of atoms splitting. Nuclear fusion, however, produces energy by combining atomic nuclei – this is how the sun generates its power. The development of nuclear fusion is still in very early stages – scientists have not yet fully understood how we can best use it.

In the UK, this is being done by Step – the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production. So far, the government has invested £222m, but more funding will be needed.

Step’s goal is to commercialise nuclear fusion energy by finding ways to reduce the size of power plants – this would reduce their price and increase building opportunities. But many technological factors influencing this, such as cooling, require significantly more research.

Alongside the nuclear fusion power plant, the plan includes an increased focus on offshore wind and hydrogen as energy sources, the phasing out of petrol and diesel cars, regulations for newbuilds, making the City of London the global hub for green finance and various other environmentally-friendly policies. Many projects have a completion date of 2030.

Through all of these projects, Johnson plans to “build back greener”. The COVID-19 pandemic is taking and will continue to take, a significant toll on the UK economy. The OECD recently predicted that by the end of 2021, the UK’s economy would still be 6.4% smaller than at the end of 2019. At the same time, jobs are disappearing quickly as businesses struggle with lower revenue caused by lockdowns.

Brexit may add to the economic turmoil in the country. Unless trade deals are struck with the EU, several large-scale production factories are set to close in the UK. Thousands of jobs would again be lost.

The government therefore desperately needs to ensure it has a backup plan to stop the economy from falling apart completely. Part of this is the “green industrial revolution”, and a key selling point to the public is that it will create jobs.

However, it is questionable how many of these will be a good fit for the newly unemployed, many of whom have retail jobs. The latter are being impacted disproportionately by COVID-19, as the difficulties faced by Debenhams and Arcadia show.

Considering there is only a limited overlap of skills and qualifications employees need for the environmental vs retail sector, it seems unlikely that the governments’ investment in science and climate will make up for the ongoing fall-out in other industries.

Aside from battling with economic issues, Johnson has also faced growing criticism about his climate strategy. The UK has often claimed to be a climate change leader, yet activists, national and international politicians and experts do not seem to agree. Especially now that the continued investment in fossil fuel projects abroad have been called into question.

Ahead of UK-hosted COP26, the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, the government is trying to make up for lost ground by launching new green projects.

By rooting economic development in climate and environmental policies, the government appears to be trying to kill two birds with one stone. Nationally, a stable economy and low unemployment rates are vital in securing re-election, especially after the highly criticised pandemic-management and personnel turmoil the current government has faced.

Internationally, calls for the UK to follow the climate policies of US president-elect Biden would be silenced and the UK may be able to prove that it is deserving of the title “climate leader”.

There are, however, many obstacles on this path and it is not clear if the government can, or even wants to, overcome them. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent spending review announced just days after the “green industrial revolution”, does not indicate that climate change and environmental protection are current focus points for the government.

Sunak announced investments into road-building projects, whereas eco-friendly housing and public transport fell short – even though Johnson had named both as priority projects. £12bn was assigned so that the UK can become a “climate leader”, but this is significantly less than what other countries are spending. Germany, for example, is planning to invest around £48.5bn by 2030, more than four times as much as the UK.

The timeline of the “green industrial revolution” has also been called into question – experts say there are too many plans for too little time. For example, a ban on petrol and diesel cars by 2030 would require significant infrastructure changes as charging stations for electrical cars would have to be built across the country. How this will be achieved, who will carry the costs, and who will plan for this significant development is not yet clear. Many have also gone further and stated that the plan has too little substance and will not have a strong enough impact.

All of this has resulted in questions: are the new green projects a sincere goal or merely a facade? And will “building back greener” really work?

If Johnson manages to reach his goals, a significant effort would have been made and a better basis for future climate change endeavours would have been created. The ten-point plan certainly does not solve all issues, but it is a step in the right direction. The odds, however, seem to be somewhat stacked against Johnson and his government appears to be complicit in this.

For the plan to truly work and be successfully implemented, all political and economic efforts would have to focus on it and more funding would be needed. At present, there is no evidence of such thorough dedication, although the quickly launched search for a nuclear fusion power plant site is a positive sign.

Of course, Step would have needed a building site sooner or later anyway, so whether Johnson’s new plans accelerated the process or it was just convenient timing remains an open question.

The “green industrial revolution” is still in its infant stage and a lot of stars would have to align for it to become a reality. Whether it’s implementation would lead to the UK recovering better and greener from its current economic issues is also not clear.

The plans are still vague and composed of big, impressive tag-lines with little detail. If Johnson truly wants to create change in his suggested timeframe, this must change and fast. We are, therefore, likely to find out sooner rather than later if the “green industrial revolution” can be a success. Being somewhat sceptical is, however, not the wrong approach.

Cover image: Richard Hurd via Flickr. Image was cropped. Licence here.

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