Britain starts a green revolution
In a most ambitious action, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveils his long-awaited ten-point action plan intended to kick-start a green industrial revolution in the UK. The strategy is designed to boost jobs and ‘level-up’ the country in terms of driving business and employment across all regions. “Our green industrial revolution will be powered by the wind turbines of Scotland and the North East, propelled by the electric vehicles made in the Midlands and advanced by the latest technologies developed in Wales,” Johnson says. Highlights in the plan include moves to heat a whole town from hydrogen by the end of the decade, and banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 – ten years earlier than previously planned. The government also plans to pump millions of pounds of investment into carbon capture and storage and developing nuclear power, both large scale and, especially, small modular reactors. The government says it will spend nearly £500 million in the next four years on the development and mass-scale production of EV batteries.
The energy sector has welcomed the 10-point plan, although some have also issued warnings over the challenges of how the strategy may be implemented. Dr Amrit Chandan, chief executive of circular economy battery company Aceleron, says the government strategy is “ambitious and admirable, and while we welcome the acceleration of EV uptake, we need innovative policy and creative engineering to ensure we don’t end up with a glut of expensive car batteries going to waste in 10 years”. He says by 2030 “it is estimated there will be 11 million tonnes of EV battery waste alone, enough to fill Wembley Stadium almost 20 times. This will only increase as the ICE ban comes forward. We are calling on the government to engage with industry and invest in circular economy infrastructure that will support the reuse and repurposing of batteries to minimise waste and maximise the potential of raw materials.” Chris Jackson, Chair of the UK Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Association, says: “It’s fantastic to see the Prime Minister committing to the incredible opportunity that hydrogen can provide for decarbonising the UK economy. It is essential that the UK capitalises on its rich expertise and heritage in the production, storage and use of hydrogen, especially for hydrogen in the heating sector and for transportation. However, it is crucial that the government ensures green hydrogen, and notably electrolysis, is front and centre of the hydrogen sector. The ability to use sun, wind and water to decarbonise the UK energy sector is one of the most tangible examples of how science and innovation can overcome some of the greatest challenges we face.”
Here is a rundown on each point:
Electric vehicles: “Backing our world-leading car manufacturing bases including in the West Midlands, North East and North Wales to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, and transforming our national infrastructure to better support electric vehicles.” The announcement which has made the biggest splash is that the government will ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars after 2030, and hybrids after 2035. This is not a new idea in itself – it started life as a 2040 ban, and then got moved forward to 2035 earlier this year. Still, the government’s own statutory advisers on climate change, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), who are normally way out ahead of the government in terms of ambition, had suggested a 2032 ban would suffice. The government has gone two years beyond that, alongside promising £1.3 billion for developing the chargepoint network, £582 million for grants to help people buy electric vehicles, and nearly £500 million to develop new, large scale battery storage – which are all new commitments. Marshall says this could have a domino effect with other countries thinking about similar moves on vehicles. Simon Daniel, chief executive and founder of battery and EV charging company Moixa, says the government has outlined “a bold plan for zero emissions. Now, we need a bold green financing plan to match. “This plan should help us build back better without increasing the long-term tax or debt burden – this is possible. We need to re-imagine economic and pension policy with ideas from the sharing economy, and new energy and sharing technologies to create jobs that deliver low carbon energy services. Only by joining together the finance requirement with existing unfunded pension liabilities, can an effective path to achieving net zero by 2050 be achieved,” he adds.
Offshore wind: “Producing enough offshore wind to power every home, quadrupling how much we produce to 40GW by 2030, supporting up to 60,000 jobs” This is not new, but is still a big move, says Marshall. The 40GW target was originally in the 2019 Conservative manifesto and further details were given just last month. Still, experts say this much offshore wind could be enough to meet half of the UK’s current electricity demand.
Homes and public buildings: “Making our homes, schools and hospitals greener, warmer and more energy efficient, whilst creating 50,000 jobs by 2030, and a target to install 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028.” Homes and heating has been an area the UK’s been lagging behind on. Marshall says many of these announcements are needed, but that they start from a very low rung. The 600,000 heat pump commitment, which is a way of heating homes electrically, is new and is a huge jump on current rates. The CCC, however, says the UK needs 1.5 million heat pumps by 2030. Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, says: “For the UK’s more than 25 million homes, the plan offers just pennies to retrofit these, scarcely scratching the huge scale of the challenge of making UK homes low carbon and climate resilient.”
Nuclear: “Advancing nuclear as a clean energy source, across large scale nuclear and developing the next generation of small and advanced reactors, which could support 10,000 jobs.” This is one of the more cryptic points in the announcement, Marshall informs. There are a number of large potential nuclear sites waiting in some stage of development in the UK, but final investment decisions have stalled because of their huge costs. The only nuclear station the UK is currently building, Hinkley Point C, is currently estimated to be costing £22 billion, and the price consumers will be paying for the electricity it produces is projected to be at least twice future market prices. Neither the government or industry has devised a widely accepted way of bringing those costs down yet, but large public subsidies are almost certain to be involved, and this week’s announcement was expected to signal a clear direction forward. While it is still not clear what will happen for large scale nuclear plants, the “next generation of small and advanced reactors” are very much still a research project for now – the £525 million research funding is new but some experts doubt whether it will ever make these small reactors cheap enough to actually be made.
Hydrogen: “Working with industry aiming to generate 5GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 for industry, transport, power and homes, and aiming to develop the first town heated entirely by hydrogen by the end of the decade.” Hydrogen is one of the newer areas which has the potential to replace many of the things we currently use oil and gas for, like heating or the huge amounts of energy needed for steel and cement production. The question is what the government means by “low carbon hydrogen”, because it can either be made from natural gas (blue hydrogen) or from water (green hydrogen). The latter is the only zero carbon way of making it, but is still in early stages of large-scale development. Many of the companies backing hydrogen are oil companies like Shell and BP, and critics say they are involved because making blue hydrogen will allow them to continue to sell high-carbon natural gas. Euan Nisbet, professor of earth sciences at Royal Holloway, says: “Hydrogen is indeed an excellent vector of energy, and making so-called ‘green’ hydrogen is a superb way to store excess wind power generated offshore during winter nights. But how it is best used needs much thought. It’s going to be very important to choose the right path.”
Carbon capture: “Becoming a world-leader in technology to capture and store harmful emissions away from the atmosphere, with a target to remove 10MT of carbon dioxide by 2030, equivalent to all emissions of the industrial Humber today.” Similarly to hydrogen, carbon capture could have some role to play in decarbonisation as it can remove unavoidable emissions that would otherwise be put into the atmosphere. The government’s already been giving research money to try and get it off the ground for decades, and there are still only a couple of successful commercial projects anywhere in the world. The 10MT target is new, as well as the funding for four industrial clusters across the UK. Marshall says both carbon capture and hydrogen could have a role to play in decarbonisation, but neither are the panaceas they are sometimes seen as.
Jet Zero and greener maritime: “Supporting difficult-to-decarbonise industries to become greener through research projects for zero-emission planes and ships.” The Jet Zero announcement first came earlier this year. Aviation is extremely difficult to decarbonise, and hopes for electric planes or alternative fuels that can be used at scale are still a challenge. Many green campaigners say the only way to really decrease emissions here is to fly less.
Public transport, cycling and walking: “Making cycling and walking more attractive ways to travel and investing in zero-emission public transport of the future.” Here there is £5 billion for green transport, but this was first announced in February.
Nature: “Protecting and restoring our natural environment, planting 30,000 hectares of trees every year, whilst creating and retaining thousands of jobs.” The 30,000 hectare announcement was in the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, and Marshall says proper protection and restoration of nature – which has a significant carbon-storing role – should have seen new, more ambitious targets being set.
Innovation and finance: “Developing the cutting-edge technologies needed to reach these new energy ambitions and make the City of London the global centre of green finance.” More details will be needed to see what this entails, though a lot of investment – public and private – will be needed to realise many of the plans announced this week. The government announced a new Green Investment Bank earlier this year, after scrapping the original in 2015. Dr Hugh Hunt, co-director at the Centre for Climate Repair at University of Cambridge, says: “We cannot underestimate the scale of engineering and endeavour that is required to meet the target of net-zero by 2050 and this target must not be missed. The costs – which will be eye-watering – of developing and scaling up zero and negative emissions technologies will be met by this and future governments. This is a good start but a drop in the ocean.”