Is the government holding up their promise of a “Green Recovery”?

Alice Manning assesses whether the Government is on track to achieve their Green Recovery Plan, and if the proposals will be sufficient to reverse the impacts of climate change.

While much of the world’s resources are currently being used for the containment and eradication of COVID-19, there is at the least a recognition that we cannot simply return to living as we did before the pandemic. In November 2020, the UK government released their much-anticipated 10-step “Green Recovery Plan”, a document that outlines their upcoming strategy to tackle climate change in the wake of the pandemic. Meanwhile, the Environment Bill continues to make its way through the parliamentary process. In March 2021, on the back of repeated delays, the consultation document that outlines the government’s new environmental protection principles was released.

Image Credits: Karsten Würth

The Impact of the Pandemic

The immediate consequences of the pandemic appeared to signal positive changes for the environment. With much of the world confined to their homes, a reduction in vehicle traffic and other contributing factors caused emissions to fall by 7% during 2020. Socially, there have been increasing numbers of people calling for an end to unsustainable consumerism, disparaging its components such as the fast fashion industry, whilst the pandemic itself has shown millions of people that we can live more sustainably.

However, the unintentional environmental wins of 2020 are already being reversed. The IEA reported that global carbon emissions returned to their pre-pandemic level following a drop in April, with levels in December 2020 actually 2% higher than in December 2019. And despite an abundance of handmade face coverings populating sites such as Etsy, it is estimated that a colossal 129 billion disposable face masks are used each month, with the potential for disastrous environmental impacts if these are not discarded correctly. There are concerns that the economic toll of the pandemic is, for many countries, likely to dissuade politicians from making the tackling of climate change a priority.

Image Credits: Markus Spiske

Key Targets

In the foreword, Boris Johnson sets out an intention to create “up to 250,000 green jobs” using a combination of government and private investment. The plan focuses on developing sustainable strategies for various sectors of the economy: in particular, transport and energy. A number of ambitious goals are set for the year 2030; for instance, the plan states that by this year “[the government] plan[s] to quadruple our offshore wind capacity so as to generate more power than all our homes use today.”

Each section concludes with a summary of what the planned developments “could deliver”, leaving a significant margin of error for the government that some critics may view as a method of avoiding committing to comprehensive goals to tackle climate change.

What was Absent?

Notably, there is no mention in any of the ten steps of encouraging a reduction in meat and dairy consumption in favour of plant-based produce. This is despite scientists and government advisors agreeing that food consumption is one of the major areas in which habits need to change. In comparison, the government document features the word “food” only once, in relation to a promise of increased support for farmers. In 2019, the UN concluded that reduced meat consumption is necessary for the harsh impacts of climate change to be reversed, with the eating habits of citizens in countries such as the UK contributing significantly to global emissions.

Additionally, the plan fails to instigate a reduction in carbon dioxide across swathes of the economy including road-building, aviation and farming.

Is the plan ambitious enough?

The failure to address key sectors of the economy that contribute to pollution has undoubtedly cast a shadow over the UK’s avowed position on climate change. 

The UK government maintains their commitment to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by  2050, stating that the UK “will continue to be at the forefront of tackling climate change.” However, many politicians and climate activists have criticised this target as insufficient; the 2050 date was in contrast to the 2030s timeline declared by the Labour Party in their manifesto for the 2019 election.

The Scottish government have published their own plan that covers areas set out in the UK-wide bill where the devolved Holyrood administration has control. Aside from minor differences, the bill appears to follow a similar structure to the UK government bill currently passing through the Commons.

Image Credits: ETA+

What have environmental activists and leaders said?

The government’s stance and plans on climate change have faced criticism from various quarters, with activists labelling the new environmental protection principles “meaningless” due to major projects that are still scheduled for completion, such as the Cumbria coal mine. Greta Thunberg joined in condemnations of the £16bn deal, highlighting the disparity between the government’s net zero aim and the plans to increase production of fossil fuels.

What about public opinion?

While the public mood is generally in favour of green initiatives, some are concerned about the cost of prioritising a green recovery. A YouGov survey in January 2021 revealed that 49% of Brits are more concerned about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, as opposed to 36% who are more concerned about the consequences of climate change. Meanwhile, a poll conducted by the BBC found that 29% of Scots believe that individual action has little or no impact on climate change.

A brighter future?

“a green future is not a pipe dream – it is within our grasp.” – Jonathan Bartley

With still much to do, and knowledge of climate change to be effectively communicated to the general public, it remains to be seen not only to what degree the government will achieve their climate goals. But how the public will respond to changes in policy? Despite the challenges ahead, many are working to put out the message that the path to a green recovery is not only feasible, but one that offers everyone a brighter future regardless of any initial costs.

Alice Manning is Deputy News and Politics Editor for WILD and is in her third year of studying English and History at the University of York.

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