Ted Christie-Miller is a Senior Researcher at Onward and is leading the Getting to zero research programme.
The existential necessity of reducing our carbon emissions, and the level of cross-party consensus in Westminster, can sometimes obscure how hard it is going to be to get there. This is a policy that will require drastic changes to human behaviour, industrial processes and the homes we live in. We need a more grown up conversation about getting to zero.
Politicians, understandably, tend to emphasise the opportunities. The Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan and last month’s Energy White Paper painted an exciting vision of a jobs-rich, cutting-edge future that could benefit Britain’s lagging regions. Voters largely agree: YouGov recently found that a majority of all age groups, regions, genders, party voters and both sides of the Brexit vote want to see Britain leading the world on climate action. Environmentalism is no longer woke metropolitanism but good politics. On the campaign trail last year in Workington, I witnessed a hustings dominated by small nuclear reactors and offshore wind.
But despite the consensus on climate, the sheer scale of the challenge is underappreciated. Over the next 30 years everything needs to change: the food we eat, the cars we drive and the way we heat our homes. As Onward uncovered last year, we need to treble the number of plumbers just to have the capacity to change out old boilers and quintuple the rate of energy efficiency improvements to insulate our housing stock. We also need to build more than 500 electric vehicle charging points a day, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.
As with all industrial transformations, the costs will not be evenly spread across the country. As new Onward research out today finds, the regions which have lagged most in recent decades stand to be hardest hit: 42 per cent of jobs in the East Midlands are in high emitting industries, 41 per cent in the West Midlands, and 38 per cent in Yorkshire and the Humber and the North West – compared to just 23 per cent in London and 34 per cent in the South East. In total, more than half (52 per cent) of high emitting jobs are located in the North, Midlands and Scotland. The risks of this turning into another North-South divide are acute.
Despite this, much of the existing spending on net zero programmes is going to more prosperous regions. New analysis from Zap Map shows that London and the South East received 45 per cent of new charger capacity in the past year. There are 63 public chargers per 100,000 people in the capital, more than double the average of the rest of the UK. Given the reliance on cars outside of London, and the high levels of public transport investment in the capital, this feels back to front. The Department for Transport itself estimates that people are 27 per cent more likely to have a car if they live in the West Midlands or the North West than in London.
The new BritishVolt gigafactory in Blyth announced last month demonstrates the potential for net zero to be a net positive. Whether it’s offshore wind in the North Sea, carbon capture clusters in the Humber or electric vehicle manufacturing in the North East, there are a sea of economic opportunities to come over the next three decades. But we cannot kid ourselves that this will be a seamless transition, and for many workers the journey from a carbon emitting job to green industry will be tough. If politicians are going to take voters with them, we need to be honest about the trade offs and develop policies to help those who stand to lose out.
This is why the Government’s combined agendas of net zero and levelling up are so crucial. If the synergies of the two missions can be found and the policy is creative, thoughtful and practical, the Government does not have to choose between the two. Net zero can and must be the key to unlock regional growth in the UK and a prosperous future for all of us.