Boris Johnson’s 10 point plan underpromises and is bound to underdeliver

By Charlie Wilson

Boris Johnson’s ten-point plan for the Environment will not put the UK on track for reaching net zero by 2050. The gap between the vainglorious patriotic bombast and the miserable reality of half-hearted nudges to the private sector with less than world leading levels of investment is quite apparent. All quotes from Boris Johnson.

Even the vision of a bright clean green future he tries to paint is hobbled by a lack of imagination. 

“Imagine Britain when a Green Industrial Revolution has helped to level up the country. You cook breakfast using hydrogen power before getting in your electric car, having charged it overnight from batteries made in the Midlands. Around you the air is cleaner; trucks, trains, ships and planes run on hydrogen or synthetic fuel.”

This is almost numbing. Everything just as it is but with different energy sources (some of it made in the Midlands). That’s it. Imagine instead that – if you have the sort of job that Johnson envisages here – you don’t need to go to work by car every day because there is effective broadband that allows you to work for home more often; nor have to pay through the nose to use a car to travel, because everything you need is within a fifteen minute walk or cycle ride; with longer journeys covered by clean, efficient electric buses, trams and trains or community car clubs. Imagine fewer vehicles and less space required for them, with car parks turned into parks with bike hangars; with a car scrappage scheme paying for travel passes and electric cycles. Imagine your home properly insulated and fuelled with renewable energy – and imagine no homeless because we have built an additional 500,000 council houses to passivhaus standards. All of this could be done with the imagination and investment and hard work we need.

To start with the brute reality of the quantity of investment. Johnson says the government will “potentially” invest “up to” £12 billion. So, maybe not even that much.  Only £3 billion of this is new money. This compares pitifully with the £27 billion earmarked for expanding the road network, the £16 billion announced for increased military spending announced on the same day; not to mention the sums being pledged by comparable countries in Europe (see Fig 1).

Figure 1 

This is a huge missed opportunity for job creation. A Green Jobs Task Force was announced just a couple of days previously with the supposed aim of generating 2 million green jobs by 2030, which would be much more like it; yet this plan claims to generate “up to” just 250,000 (an eighth of that figure). An investment of £68 billion would create 1.2 million green jobs in the next two years. The TUC and others have presented the government with detailed plans that it has not picked up on. The consequence will be mass unemployment AND a failure to meet the green transition targets we so desperately need.

Classic Johnsonian fantasy “This 10-point plan will turn the UK into the world’s number one centre for green technology and finance, creating the foundations for decades of economic growth” jars with the reality that if you look at the patents filed for renewable energy technology[i], for example, the UK doesn’t even get its own column. It is bundled in with the “rest of the world”. China is out in front with 7544, with the USA trailing on 2059, Germany on 571 and Japan on 89. The UK is well below that. 

There is no mention of education at all. The General Secretaries of the NEU, UCU, NUS and Teach the Future wrote to Johnson pointing out that the transition that is needed will require a significant repurposing of the education system. Verdict “Must try harder.” Text here.

Here are the ten points

“One — we will make the UK the Saudi Arabia of wind with enough offshore capacity to power every home by 2030.”

This is the minimum needed and is already planned for and on the stocks. There is no programme for onshore wind – the cheapest form of electricity generation – which the Conservatives have gone out of their way to discourage, hitherto favouring fracking and now proposing miniature nuclear power stations instead.  The comparison with Saudi Arabia is another absurd vainglorious pose. Saudi Arabia exports vast quantities of oil. This programme does not even supply all domestic energy demands.

“Two — we will turn water into energy with up to £500m of investment in hydrogen.”

The hint at transubstantiation here is possible a recognition that expecting great things from “up to” £500 million in investment relies on praying for a miracle. Hydrogen is given a prominence that implies that it will be the main plank in replacing natural gas for heating and cooking, though there is also a pledge to deploy 600 000 heat pumps a year by 2028 (with no plan for how to do it other than the target itself). The transition from Town to Natural Gas in the 1970s cost £100 million (£1 billion in today’s money) so just the conversion, leaving aside the costs of production, building the plant and scaling up, would be twice what they have earmarked.

“Three — we will take forward our plans for new nuclear power, from large scale to small and advanced modular reactor.”

This makes no sense at all. The small modular reactors are unproven technology. So is the technology currently being built at Hinckley Point, which is already over budget and off target. Investment in nuclear takes a very long time. It is also absurdly expensive compared with wind or solar power (see fig 2) – and becomes more so as time goes on. the government is committing to a herd of white elephants[ii]. The excess costs for taking on this less-than-optimal option will be paid for by everyone’s energy bills.

Figure 2. Mean costs per megawatt hour of electricity.

“Four — we’ll invest more than £2.8bn in electric vehicles, lacing the land with charging points and creating long-lasting batteries in UK gigafactories. This will allow us to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans in 2030. However, we will allow the sale of hybrid cars and vans that can drive a significant distance with no carbon coming out of the tailpipe until 2035.

“Five — we will have cleaner public transport, including thousands of green buses and hundreds of miles of new cycle lanes.”

After decarbonising the energy grid, which will be unfinished business on these proposals, this is the most important sector to get a grip on. Emissions are rising, largely because there are more cars on the roads overall and car companies have been pushing SUVs, which have high emissions. SUVs also have a negative impact on road deaths for anyone unfortunate enough to collide with them.

The ban on new fossil fuel car sales from 2030 is welcome, though the loophole for hybrids implies that they don’t pollute. They do. So they should be included. SUVs should also be phased out as rapidly as possible and the companies that build them fined substantial sums every year that they continue to do so.

A green transition in transport also does not simply imply a 1:1 swap between fossil fuel cars and electric cars, but a significant shift away from cars altogether. 

The investment in gigafactories will be more significant in the transition to electric public transport. Unlike most cars, buses are in almost continuous use. This can be done much quicker than the snail’s pace currently projected even by TFL – the best run local transport network in the country. In Shenzen in southern China, they converted every single one of their 16,000 buses from diesel to electric in one year (2016) which shows what could be possible given the political will. Making the most rapid transition also requires a coherent national transport plan – both to tie city neighbourhood together and provide a web of connections for rural areas too. That requires investment in public transport that is genuinely public. Bailing out the existing private companies with no strings – in contrast to the harsh conditions imposed on TFL – shows the government is more concerned with propping up the private sector than solving problems.

The level of investment in bike lanes is also absurdly small and there is massive room for expansion. “Hundreds of miles”, when you consider that there are 247,100 miles of roads in the UK. London alone has over 9000 miles of roads and just 60 miles of bike lanes so far; with scope for 1400 miles of road to be added.

“Six — we will strive to repeat the feat of Jack Alcock and Teddie Brown, who achieved the first nonstop transatlantic flight a century ago, with a zero-emission plane. And we will do the same with ships.”

Air travel is significantly down as a result of COVID. Heathrow expansion is probably dead. Much to the relief of anyone who lives anywhere near the airports, who have reported a wonderful release from a constant barrage of noise. There is no mention here of the need for transition for workers being made redundant in this industry. A Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines competition to build a zero-carbon emissions aircraft capable of getting across the Atlantic is another of Johnson’s imperial nostalgic wheezes and as fanciful as the Thames Garden Bridge. Serious work on reducing the carbon emissions of shipping is crucial however, but seems to be tacked on as an afterthought. Nothing is spelled out here about how this is to be done, nor who will do it, nor is any investment earmarked. It should be.

“Seven — we will invest £1bn next year to make homes, schools and hospitals greener, and energy bills lower.”

Truly, the mountain laboured and brought forth a mouse. The schools sector alone needs £28 billion by 2030 to get to zero carbon. Retrofitting housing would be best done through a national plan using local authorities to grow skilled direct labour workforces able to utilise economies of scale with a rolling programme starting with the worst-off estates and areas. The current system of grants for homeowners via accredited local installers – of which there are too few – leads to an incredibly inefficient and time-consuming system in which improvements are made in penny packets by those most able to afford it – whose energy bills are then subsidised by those that can’t. A perfect example of an unjust transition. The Conservative obsession with treating all situations as an opportunity primarily to benefit small business plays well with their base – mostly small business people – but is the retrofitting equivalent of growing wheat in flower pots.

“Eight — we will establish a new world-leading industry in carbon capture and storage, backed by £1bn of government investment for clusters across the North, Wales and Scotland.”

CCS will be important for heavy industries but research into it has been going on for a long time without viable results. The small total of investment implies that this will be about as world leading as the COVID App and not especially immediate in its impact; and therefore more likely to be playing the role of a fig leaf or gesture to allow business as usual to carry on while targets regretfully slip.

“Nine — we will harness nature’s ability to absorb carbon by planting 30,000 hectares of trees a year by 2025 and rewilding 30,000 football pitches’ worth of countryside.”

This is miserably unambitious. The mean average size of a football pitch is 0.72 hectares. So, the proportion of land in the UK scheduled to be rewilded in this plan is 0.2% of the total – which looks like this.

Figure 3. Not exactly going wild.

“And ten — our £1bn energy innovation fund will help commercialise new low-carbon technologies, like the world’s first liquid air battery being developed in Trafford, and we will make the City of London the global centre for green finance through our sovereign bond, carbon offset markets and disclosure requirements.”

 An energy innovation fund is a good thing, but the aim should be to produce the most usable technologies for the greatest number of people – not follow the commercial imperative that means it will follow the demands of the people who can afford it: thereby skewing research in the wrong direction. 

“This plan can be a global template for delivering net zero emissions in ways that create jobs and preserve our lifestyles. “I will establish a “task force net zero” committed to reaching net zero by 2050, and through next year’s COP26 summit we will urge countries and companies around the world to join us in delivering net zero globally. Green and growth can go hand-in-hand.”

A global template cannot be one in which every country claims it will be world beating and a world leader any more than everyone can be above average. It does appear to be a plan to “preserve our lifestyles” as they are now – with no reflection that if they were duplicated across the world, we would need three planets to sustain them – with strenuous efforts put in to avoid anything that might actually make them better but don’t follow a commercial imperative. This is a plan for a slightly greener gated community that is not pulling its full weight, expects other, poorer countries to take up the slack – or just stay poor to keep their emissions down – so comfortably off people here can avoid the inconvenience of taking the bus.

“On Wednesday I will meet UK businesses to discuss their contribution. We plan to provide clear timetables for the clean energy we will procure, details of the regulations we will change, and the carbon prices that we will put on emissions.”

It remains to be seen how much of a contribution comes from business and, conversely, how much contribution they are given. Hopefully the process of managing this will not be outsourced to SERCO or companies run by friends of the cabinet.

“So, let us meet the most enduring threat to our planet with one of the most innovative and ambitious programmes of job-creation we have known.”

That is just what is needed and just what this plan isn’t.