Zero progress on climate but devo can keep things on track

By Grace Newcombe | 20 April 2022

We are facing a climate and ecological emergency and a cost of living crisis; the imperative to act to end our dependence on fossil fuels and transition to zero carbon lifestyles has never been greater.

Some 300 local authorities have now declared a climate emergency and set their own zero carbon targets, and all have a legal duty to achieve the Climate Act Target of zero carbon by 2050.

Net zero and levelling up go hand in hand – for either one to succeed the other cannot be ignored. Policies and decision-making over the next few years will determine success in this space; the right policies and incentives must be set to enable both agendas to thrive.

Fortunately, many of the carbon-intensive sectors of the economy where decarbonisation looks most daunting are concentrated in exactly the sorts of localities that the Government wants to level up – striving for net zero presents an opportunity to bring jobs, growth and consideration towards these ‘left behind’ parts of the country. You’d have thought this would make determinedly pursuing both agendas a no brainer for the Government.

The Government’s Levelling Up White Paper published in February received criticism for spectacularly little reference towards achieving net zero and clean growth goals, with no indications as to how the necessary transition will be undertaken.

In all fairness, the link between net zero and levelling up was identified in the White Paper, alongside a loose ambition for delivering both agendas. But that is as far as it goes. Out of the 332-page report, net zero is mentioned just over 60 times. The dedicated net zero section consists of three pages, two of which are entirely pictures while the ‘green industrial revolution and transition to net zero’ came second bottom of the list of 16 priorities.

The Government could have used the White Paper to kickstart a green industrial revolution throughout the UK. Instead we are looking at a huge missed opportunity – there are obvious areas that should have been addressed.

Starting with one of the biggest concerns of net zero and levelling up: skills. The transition will require a rapid development of new roles and industries, and decarbonisation of existing industries, opening up thousands of jobs. For this to be achieved, much more needs to be done in terms of adult learning, technical education and apprenticeships as a way to build green skills.

A significant barrier to levelling up is poor quality housing with energy efficiency, fuel poverty and poor health all interlinked. Improving energy efficiency through retrofitting our existing housing stock is key to both levelling up and reaching net zero, but more significant details on the policy and fiscal support are required than provided in the White Paper.

Public transport plays a key role in connecting and transforming our towns and cities, boosting economic recovery from the pandemic, and delivering more education and job opportunities. Despite declaring a ‘national mission’ to ensure improved public transport connectivity, better services, integrated ticketing, and simpler fares, there is in fact very little detail as to how the Government will achieve this.

Reaching net zero depends on replacing dirty fossil fuels and the technology that uses them with cleaner alternatives. New technology needs to be developed and existing clean technology made cheaper and better. For a geographical rebalancing of innovation and research and development, new investment is needed. Yet there is no new funding – Rishi Sunak made it clear that all the money for the next three years has already been allocated.

It does make you wonder how the UK Government believes it can improve inequalities and work towards net zero without any coherent conjoined policies or new spending. The fact that the net zero transition is so low on the list of priorities reduces the chances for regional clean growth investment and leaves both the UK’s net zero targets and levelling up agenda in doubt.

There is one firm glimmer of hope for net zero progress. Arguably the strongest element of the White Paper is the new devolution agenda and potential for more mayoral authorities. It is no coincidence areas that have high profile mayors feature more in the national conversation and are more successful in attracting big public and private projects.

This could offer real opportunities for local authorities to raise their ambition, and to work together to scale up and strengthen the powers they do have, particularly through Local Plans to create joined-up net zero carbon strategies. Crucially, the new mayoralties and governorships will outlast this Government and the funding streams in the White Paper to pursue and embed long-term net zero strategies.

But transitioning to zero carbon is a huge challenge, and one which cannot be achieved through devolved powers and policy alone. It requires a major shift towards aligned national policy to resource and support local authorities to leverage the private investment that is needed – estimated at £206bn across the UK’s 11 core cities and London councils.

With greater devolution and collaboration – alongside sufficient resources to build skills and capacity – local authorities can set a vision towards achieving net zero societies for their residents. Without this, there is no path to net zero.

Grace Newcombe is lead clean growth researcher at Localis

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Health Housing Devolution Skills Localis Local Plans Technology inequality climate emergency Levelling up