Amid the hundreds of pages of the UK government’s comprehensive net zero strategy, there is one glaring omission – Rishi Sunak.
The roadmap to end the nation’s contribution to the climate crisis by 2050 is comprehensive. But it is seriously underfunded and without Sunak’s backing, it could as easily become the route to climate hell as climate salvation.
As the prime minister, Boris Johnson, said on Tuesday: “I can deploy billions – with the approval of the chancellor.” Four ministers, the chief scientific adviser, and Alok Sharma, Cop26 president, all spoke up via the government’s press release. Sunak, or indeed any Treasury minister, was conspicuous by his absence.
Johnson promised to “unleash the unique creative power of capitalism to drive the innovation that will bring down the costs of going green” and deliver trillions from the private sector. But whether it is heat pumps, hydrogen trucks, green airplanes, or small nuclear reactors, public money is essential to kickstart the net zero journey and turn expensive new technology into affordable everyday infrastructure.
The fear had been that Sunak and the Treasury were obsessed with only one half of the net zero balance sheet – the costs. But a Treasury review published alongside the net zero strategy takes the same line as all serious economic analysis of climate action: “The costs of global inaction significantly outweigh the costs of action.”
The review goes further, noting the “multiple market failures” of the fossil fuel economy and saying: “UK climate action could provide a boost to the economy. There will also be co-benefits, such as [£35bn worth of] improved air quality.” It also notes the important role of public spending and that low-income groups must be protected from the upfront costs of going green – vital if the political fight for net zero is to be won.
But why is Sunak so shy of all this that he did not put his name to it? Shaun Spiers, at the Green Alliance, said: “We need a more ambitious response from the chancellor at the spending review to turn these promises into jobs, growth and benefits to consumers.”
The spending review takes place on 27 October, four days before Cop26 begins in Glasgow. At the summit, the UK must win big pledges from all the major nations on emissions cuts and climate funding. Without credible action at home, that will be even tougher than it was already.
Johnson will be able to point at some striking steps forward, such as the end of new gas boilers by 2035, even if he is reticent to call it a ban. A mandate requiring carmakers to sell a minimum proportion of electric cars – starting in 2024 and presumably rising to 100% by 2030 – is a strong move.
The shiny tech so beloved of the prime minister gets a good shot of research money too, such as the £100m for technology to suck CO2 from the air and £380m for offshore windfarms, including ones that float.
But Johnson’s desire to always please the crowd has left the trickiest problems ignored. Meat consumption must fall to hit climate goals, but it is not mentioned anywhere in the 368-page strategy. His yearning for “guilt-free” flying is backed only by a plan for 10% of aviation fuel to be sustainable by 2030. The Treasury review warns of the huge tax loss when petrol and diesel cars have run their race, but the obvious replacement – per mile road pricing – is never mentioned.
Overall, the good news is that the net zero strategy largely mirrors the guidance of the Climate Change Committee, the government’s official advisers. Buy whether it gets the funding it needs to become a reality, just in time for Cop26, is up to Sunak.