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Media reaction: Boris Johnson’s ‘10-point’ net-zero plan for climate change

Posted on 27 November 2020 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Carbon Brief

The UK prime minister Boris Johnson has announced a long-awaited “10-point plan” laying out measures to scale up the nation’s climate ambition.

These policy proposals and funding packages have been framed as a means to create jobs, promote a “green recovery” from Covid-19 and help the UK achieve its net-zero emissions target by 2050.

A ban by 2030 on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars is the most eye-catching policy, but there is also around £4bn in new funding for a variety of emissions-cutting proposals.

There has been blanket coverage across UK newspapers of the plan, with the story appearing on the frontpages of the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Times and the Independent

After nearly two days of media coverage, the government published a policy document laying out more details of its strategy and stating it was “only the start” of its net-zero plans.

In this article, Carbon Brief has documented what the prime minister has proposed, how the media has responded and how the measures stack up against the UK’s legally binding net-zero emissions goal.

It also examines each of the sectors targeted in the plan and how they have been addressed.

‘Green industrial revolution’

Johnson laid out how he wanted the plan to be viewed in an opinion piece for the Financial Times, published on the evening of its release.

The article talks of a “green industrial revolution” that will invest £12bn of government funds, create 250,000 green jobs and help drive a green recovery from Covid-19 by “build[ing] back better”:

“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.” 

He also described it as a “global template for delivering net-zero emissions” ahead of the UK hosting the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow next year.

However, there was much discussion in the media and the climate community of the significance of Johnson’s plan and to what extent it would set the UK on course for its 2050 net-zero goal.

Some of this debate is captured in a Twitter thread by Carbon Brief’s policy editor Simon Evans, who concludes that, while the new announcement is substantial, it alone will not be enough to get the UK to net-zero.

The Financial Times reported that the plan is a “far cry” from what will be needed to reach net-zero emissions, citing “climate experts”.

Quoting the detailed policy document that was released a full day after the original announcement was released to journalists, the newspaper stated:

 “The government estimates the plan will save more than 180m tonnes of CO2 emissions during the 2023 to 2032 period, which is slightly more than half the UK’s annual emissions right now.” 

This official breakdown was not published until the end of the working day and, therefore, did not find its way into most of the reporting on the 10-point plan. 

There was no mention in the media of those emissions savings only closing 55% of the gap to meeting the UK’s approaching, legally binding climate goals and, therefore, falling far short of the government’s net-zero ambitions.

The government’s policy document stated “this is only the start”. It mentioned plans to “devise further sectoral plans and meet our carbon budgets and target of net-zero by 2050”. It also referenced working with industry and creating a “task force net-zero”.

New Scientist also asked if the plan is enough to reach net-zero, noting that “in general, the plan’s most obvious shortcoming is money”, but adding that it “would be churlish not to acknowledge bold new targets”.

The Guardian reported that, despite the headline £12bn figure, the opposition Labour party pointed out that “at best” £4bn from the new announcement is new money. For context, BBC News’s energy and environment analyst Roger Harrabin said the “total amount of new money announced in the package is a 25th of the projected £100bn cost of high-speed rail, HS2”.

However, following the first wave of reporting, it emerged that the amount of new funding may be even smaller. Another Guardian piece quoted a government spokesperson who said “of the £12bn, £3bn of it is brand-new investment”.

The public funds are spread across nuclear power, charging infrastructure, energy efficiency in homes, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and nature restoration. (More details can be found in the sections below.)

The Daily Telegraph reported that the government’s spending plans are “dwarfed by figures pledged in other major European nations”, while BusinessGreen said the UK will need to invest an extra £400bn this decade on the way to net-zero, according to consultancy PwC.

However, the Guardian noted that “some say proposed public funding is too little while others say key is galvanising private capital.” An article on the frontpage of the Daily Telegraph business section ran under the print headline: “Consumers to foot the bill for green revolution.”

Much of the coverage also pointed out that many of the policies, including 40 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind and support for tree planting, have already been announced.

Political climate

The announcement has come at a potentially pivotal time in UK climate policy. The government is expected to shortly release an energy white paper which will expand on the 10-point plan’s themes and propose future legislation, as BBC News reported.

Crucially, government advisers at the Climate Change Committee (CCC) will release their recommendations for the UK’s sixth carbon budget on 9 December, outlining a path to net-zero emissions. (Previous budgets have only been in line with the 80% emissions reduction target by 2050 that was formerly in place.)

In a frontpage story published ahead of the new announcement, the Independent quoted CCC chair Lord Deben, who said Johnson must immediately commit to a raft of fully funded policies if he hopes to be seen as “credible” on climate change.

BusinessGreen quoted Lord Deben responding to the plan saying he is “delighted to see the breadth of the prime minister’s commitment”, but it must now “be turned into a detailed road map”. BBC News Reality Check published a piece looking back at the record of UK governments on climate and other green targets.

The Financial Times noted that the plan is also “intended as a signal of intent as Britain prepares to host next year’s UN COP26 climate change summit”. 

It comes as the UK prepares to co-host a summit on 12 December to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, Climate Home News reported. There is speculation that the UK will announce a new nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement around this time.

The Financial Times also described the announcement as a “reset” to plan a post-pandemic future and “move on after the chaotic infighting in Downing Street in recent days”.

It noted that allies of Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who quit last week, have argued that a shift towards green policies would “lose the party votes in former industrial areas”. 

The prime minister himself appeared to be pushing against this idea by emphasising the importance of green hubs in those same former industrial areas, namely Teesside, Port Talbot, Merseyside and Mansfield.

As a counterpoint, an article in Conservative Home looking ahead to Johnson’s plan emphasised the importance of Conservative MPs in “red wall” seats who won elections supporting green projects: “In short, parts of this Blue Wall, as we’re now told it should be called, are going green.”

Parts of the right-leaning press expressed dismay at Cummings’ departure and what it would mean for the government’s climate plans. An editorial in the Sunday Telegraph said it must not “mean caving in to the woke crowd or elevating the green agenda as [Johnson’s] primary mission”. 

This has not been the only source of internal opposition for the government, according to a frontpage story earlier in the week in the Observer. It revealed that “Johnson’s plans to relaunch his premiership with a blitz of announcements on combating climate change and the creation of tens of thousands of new green jobs are meeting stiff resistance from the cash-strapped Treasury”.

Finally, while the plans cover a variety of sectors, some media analysis has focused on key areas that have been omitted. A BBC News piece listed some of these, including farming, road building and overseas finance.

Editorials and commentary

The 10-point plan’s release triggered a wave of editorials and comment pieces in national newspapers.

An editorial in the Guardian said the ambition “is the right one, but with the current prime minister there is no guarantee that it will evolve beyond laudable intent”. It noted that much of the money had been announced before, but added:

“It is churlish to judge Mr Johnson’s move exclusively in cash terms. Money matters, but so does the message that Britain wants to be part of the global trend towards carbon-neutrality.”

The Financial Times editorial said Johnson’s plan has “plant[ed] a political flag”, but that a “detailed road map is needed to mobilise private capital”. It said the plan is a “commendable vision”, despite its “many gaps”.

The Daily Mirror described the plan as “more style than substance”, stating that while the plan is “welcome, the scale of what the PM is proposing is disappointingly limited”. 

For the lead editorial in the Times, the green plan was “ambitious but viable”, adding that “Labour says he should have gone further, and indeed he might have done.” It concluded:

“The plan is welcome not only because it makes economic sense, but because it provides political direction to a prime minister increasingly accused of not knowing what he wants to do with the luxury of an 80-seat commons majority. The Tories are right to seize greenery as a Conservative issue, because it is helping to conserve the planet and will foster new industries.” 

Others were less positive about the idea of a “green industrial revolution”, with the Daily Telegraph describing it as “a fine ambition”, but asking: “How will it work in practice?” It added: “What is questionable is not the ambition but the feasibility.”

A short editorial in the Daily Mail (not online, but tweeted) said the plan was “commendable”, but “ill-timed” given the Covid-19 crisis and Brexit. This sentiment was also echoed in the same paper by columnist Stephen Glover who asked why the prime minister was “grand green plan in the midst of a crisis”.

The Daily Mail’s editorial also cited an estimate that cutting the UK’s emissions to net-zero would cost £1tn – a figure first claimed by former chancellor Philip Hammond last year and something the CCC’s chief executive Chris Stark has disputed.

Regarding costs, for the Times Red Box, Shaun Spiers, executive director of thinktank Green Alliance, called on the Treasury to “get with the programme”, noting reports that it had “resisted the prime minister’s plans”. He added: “Over the next couple of months we need to see the policy detail backed by serious spending commitments.” 

In the Independent, economics editor Ben Chu said the spending review next week is “an opportunity for the government to fill in some of the big gaps” in green investment.

For the Guardian, Greenpeace’s Rebecca Newsom said the plan “looks good”, but added: 

“When it comes to the funding, the government both needs to check its priorities and accept that £4bn is only a down payment for what is required for a green recovery.”

In the Independent, Green MP Caroline Lucas compared the “paltry” sum of new money with the £27bn earmarked for roads and the £36bn being invested in a green recovery in Germany. 

In the Daily Telegraph’s business section, columnist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard welcomed the plan as “our path to economic and political revival”. However, various others writing in the same paper took a rather more sceptical tone.

piece in the daily newspaper by Sunday Telegraph editor Allister Heath said the ideas would “backfire disastrously on Boris”, writing:

“So the only real question, in practice, is how will we go green, and how quickly? Will the authoritarian hair-shirt, command and control, Stone Age tendency triumph? Will cars be banned, people forced to cycle, airports be shut, and the vast majority of the population’s quality of life trashed in a debilitating culture war waged by an army of puritanical, elitist, neo-luddite, collectivist eco-warriors?” 

Spectator article by James Kirkup ran under the headline: “Boris’s eco-optimism will get the better of him”. It cited polling by his think tank, the Social Market Foundation, which found voters are generally positive about a greener economy “though their level of knowledge about what that means is fairly low”. 

“The big variations in attitude are found in income: unsurprisingly, the more money people have, the more relaxed they are about the costs of net zero,” Kirkup wrote.

For BusinessGreen, Nick Molho of the Aldersgate Group said the green plan “can be a turning point for the net-zero transition”. 

In a letter to the Times, Prof Lorraine Whitmarsh wrote “as ever, there is an assumption that technology alone can get us to net zero – which we know from numerous studies it can’t”. 

The remainder of this Carbon Brief article consists of a sector-by-sector breakdown of what the government has pledged and how the media has responded.

Electric vehicles

Virtually all the coverage of the overarching plan has led on the government bringing forward the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2030, with more than one headline describing it as the “end of the road” for the vehicles. 

As Reuters noted, the new date is five years earlier than the 2035 pledge made by Johnson in February, which was itself a revision of the initial target date of 2040.

The government announced the policy as part of a wider package “to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles and transforming our national infrastructure to better support electric vehicles”.

This included funding consisting of £1.3bn to accelerate the rollout of electric vehicle charging infrastructure and £582m in grants. The i newspaper reported that these grants, “worth thousands of pounds” will encourage people to trade in their cars for cleaner models.

The final component in the plans was “nearly £500m to be spent in the next four years” as part of a wider scheme to develop the UK’s first battery gigafactory.

While the 2035 target has been widely viewed as a significant policy shift, it is in line with the CCC’s guidance, which said such a ban should be brought in by 2032 at the latest. 

However, there was no accompanying mandate for carmakers to sell zero-emission vehicles, as proposed by the CCC. 

Simon Jack, BBC News’s business editor, said the ban “puts the UK toward the front of the pack in the electric vehicle race”, while the Independent’s climate correspondent Daisy Dunne pointed out that the only country with a more ambitious target is Norway, which has set 2025 as its phaseout date.

In its coverage, the Times also noted that, besides the headline ban, new hybrid vehicles will be “outlawed” five years later in 2035. In the announcement, the government specified it will allow vehicles that can drive “a significant distance with no carbon coming out of the tailpipe” until this date. 

However, the Guardian said a new report from the transport thinktank New Automotive estimates that “the government would need to set a sales ban of 2026 for internal combustion engine vehicles or introduce extra measures to reduce car use if it hopes to meet its own 2030 carbon budget”.

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