Six things the UK could do to tackle climate change
The government is due to announce its plan for how to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions, possibly this coming week.
It has already signed up to ambitious targets, attempting to set an example to other countries before November’s COP26 meeting of world leaders in Glasgow.
The government has pledged to reduce emissions sharply by 2035 and put the UK on track to be net zero by 2050 – meaning the country will absorb as much carbon dioxide (through things like tree planting) as it emits.
But as the hosts of the Glasgow meeting, the UK will also need to show it is ready to act. As the Queen and Greta Thunberg have both seemingly put it, in different ways – less talking, more doing.
So what could be in the government’s net zero strategy?
- Subsidise warmth
It’s not just the protestors blocking motorways – just about everyone agrees that tackling the way we heat our homes is a priority.
So the government is likely to make clear how it will meet previous manifesto commitments on insulating homes, especially social housing, and promoting the switch to cleaner heating sources.
It could set a date for ending the sale of gas boilers. And it could go further.
There’s a cleaner alternative to gas boilers: heat pumps. They are much cheaper to run but the initial cost, at £6,000 and upwards, puts most people off.
Nick Mabey at environmental consultancy E3G suggests the government could support firms to supply them with interest-free loans.
“You’d get it in a hire purchase kind of way,” says Mr Mabey. “Spread it over the lifetime of the heat pump and people would be saving money.”
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) representing businesses agrees the government should “get the ball rolling” – with the expectation that in the long run heat pumps come down in price and the subsidies can be phased out.
- Cut the burger rate
Prince Charles has a couple of meat-free days a week. The government could call for more of us to follow suit.
They may be reluctant to tell shoppers what to put in their baskets, but according to a survey by the think tank Demos, more than 90% of us would be in favour of a government-led campaign to reduce meat and dairy consumption.
A more radical move would be to set higher taxes for meat, or lower taxes on fruit and veg, to influence what we buy.
But the government appeared to take that idea off the table earlier this year, saying it would not be putting a tax “on the great British banger or anything else”.
As well as looking at consumer demand, Polly Mackenzie, chief executive of Demos, says the government should use agricultural policy to move away from simply subsidising production.
“We’ve repatriated control of agricultural subsidies because of Brexit,” she says. “We can change what we pay farmers to do, shift that effort and investment into encouraging rewilding, better upland land management, reforestation.”
- Streetlamp charging
The switch to electric vehicles (EVs) is underway but there’s a roadblock: not enough charging points.
You can’t easily charge a car from a fifth floor flat and according to the AA around 30% of homeowners don’t have access to somewhere to charge at home or at work.
MPs have proposed requiring property developers to include public charging points, and said councils should make sure charging infrastructure is built.
But low income, remote and rural areas risk being left behind if it’s left to the commercial sector to install charging points, says E3G’s Nick Mabey.
One way to help plug the gap, he says, would be to turn more streetlamps into charging points – something that’s being widely trialled already.
Charging is slower than at a custom-built charging points, but the installation can be relatively cheap.
Above all though the chancellor needs to backs local government financially to make sure charging points are rolled out for all, he says.
- Climate accounting
Nick Mabey’s number one priority though is something which sounds more mundane: company reporting.
The problem is most company bosses aren’t in the job long enough to think past the short term, he argues, and he wants new rules obliging firms to publish their longer term plans to reach net zero.
No other country has managed to do this yet.
“It would change the whole face of British business. Investors would fight shy of firms that can’t show they’re ready,” he says.
“Firms should be planning for the transition anyway. If they are, they can show investors those plans. If they aren’t, why aren’t they? And do you want to put your pension in a firm that has its head stuck in the sand?”
Many businesses are supportive says the CBI, but they aren’t yet doing it voluntarily.
- Taxing carbon
The UK already has a sort of tax on carbon because industry has to pay for emissions permits. There are fuel duties too.
Economists like the principle: charge people to burn carbon and you give them an incentive not to.
So we could raise these taxes further. However, the CBI argues that tax breaks would be more appropriate.
These businesses are precisely the ones that need to make huge investments to decarbonise, argues Tom Thackray, programme director for decarbonisation at the CBI. “There’s a case for supporting them not financially penalising them.”
But what about a direct tax on the stuff we buy?
In its favour: it doesn’t cost the government anything up front and could even raise a bit of revenue.
The problem: a carbon tax would make up a bigger proportion of day-to-day spending for society’s poorest which seems unfair.
Those in favour of carbon taxes say there are ways around this – redistributing the proceeds to people on low incomes for example or using the money to reduce the cost of fruit and vegetables or public transport.
The other stumbling block, how to avoid untaxed goods from overseas undercutting tax-paying UK producers, is trickier. But then that is what conferences like COP26 are there for: international cooperation.
- Throw money at it
Rishi Sunak may not be keen on further big outlays after the past 18 months.
But, both employers and workers organisations believe it is crucial. The CBI is calling for a “wall of investment” from government and the TUC puts a figure on it saying over the next two years £85bn should be spent on everything from faster broadband to reforestation.
The CBI’s Tom Thackray says “those costs have to be weighed up against the cost of inaction.”
As well as the impact of severe weather, without investment the UK risks being left behind in the global green tech race, he says.
Mika Minio-Paluello from the Trades Union Congress (TUC) says government investment will drive private investment, and the UK could establish some “international leadership.”
Other G7 nations area already pumping money into helping industries like steel decarbonise, she says.
“If we are ahead of the game, developing technology, that helps future exports.
“If we’re late to the game our steel industry is not going to be competitive. For us it’s about hitting those climate targets but it’s also about future-proofing UK jobs and industries.”
Action not words
Of course there are dozens more policy options, from building more nuclear generation – which the government is reported to favour – to a frequent flyer levy; supporting carbon capture and storage to restoring peatlands; investing in public transport networks to generating energy from household waste.
But whatever the net zero strategy contains, it will be judged not only on its direction and priorities, but also on how concrete its proposals are, so that people and businesses waiting to take action can work out what their next step might be.