U.K. proposals for a green recovery after Covid-19

A widely-reported study by economists at Oxford University seeks to identify fiscal policies which will best lead the world to post-Covid economic recovery, while also leading to a net-zero economy.  Will COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages accelerate or retard progress on climate change?  was published on May 4 as a Working Paper by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University, (forthcoming as an article in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy). Lead authors Cameron Hepburn and Brian O’Callaghan are joined by economic heavy-weights such as Nicholas Stern and Joseph Stiglitz, among others. The paper states: “The climate emergency is like the COVID-19 emergency, just in slow motion and much graver. Both involve market failures, externalities, international cooperation, complex science, questions of system resilience, political leadership, and action that hinges on public support. Decisive state interventions are also required to stabilise the climate, by tipping energy and industrial systems towards newer, cleaner, and ultimately cheaper modes of production that become impossible to outcompete.”

The authors identified over 700 fiscal stimulus policies used since the 2008 financial crisis – both climate-friendly and not – and distilled these down to 25 archetypal policies. They then  surveyed the reactions of 231 senior economists and financial experts from over 50 countries to these archetypal policies, and identified the  five “with high potential on both economic multiplier and climate impact metrics: clean physical infrastructure, building efficiency retrofits, investment in education and training, natural capital investment, and clean R&D. In lower- and middle income countries (LMICs) rural support spending is of particular value while clean R&D is less important.”

An informal summary of this report, written by the two lead authors, appears as Leading economists: Green coronavirus recovery also better for economy” at Carbon Brief (May 5). Other coverage includes “Green Stimulus can repair global economy and climate, study says”  (The Guardian, May 5);

Also on May 4, the Smith School released a companion Working Paper  “A net-zero emissions economic recovery from COVID-19”  which discusses the differences between the 2008 financial crisis and the economic damage of the  Covid-19 pandemic. It  builds on the paper by Hepburn et al., and makes 10 specific recommendations for a U.K. green stimulus package, with strategies clustered around:

  1.  Large-scale investment (including Transforming energy generation, storage and distribution; transforming industrial energy usage, especially  in the energy-intensive industrial sectors (steel, cement, ceramics, chemicals, pulp and paper) ; high-speed broadband internet connectivity to embed working from home practices ; investment in nature-based solutions for disaster resiliency.
  2.  Accelerate investment in high-sustainability impact technologies
  3.  Incentivize individual-level change – in transportation, home energy efficiency, and job training for green economy jobs
  4. Make Bailouts conditional on a legal commitment and a pathway and timeline to net-zero emissions, particularly for fossil fuel intensive industries such as airlines.

The paper concludes with proposals for institutional structures to implement these policies, including a Climate Change Emergency Committee and a Net Zero Delivery Body in the U.K. , and perhaps most remarkably, proposes an international Sustainable Recovery Alliance (SRA) to be launched at COP 26. The purpose: to act  “As a flexible “coalition of the willing” outside of the UNFCCC architecture, the group would promote a shared vision of a sustainable recovery.”

committee on climate change

And on May 6, the existing U.K. Committee on Climate Change issued a press release announcing its Letter to the Prime Minister, setting out six key principles to for a green recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The principles call for fairness to be embedded as a core principle,  a shift to new behaviours such as cycling and working from home, the possibility of raising carbon taxes, and,  “Support for carbon-intensive sectors should be contingent on them taking real and lasting action on climate change, and all new investments need to be resilient to future climate risks.”

UK researchers call for absolute zero reduction policy, greening of the steel industry

absolute zeroAbsolute Zero , released by the University of Cambridge in November 2019,  warns that the U.K. will not reach zero emissions by 2050 without significant changes to policies, industrial processes and individual lifestyle choices – including closing all airports in the UK by mid-century.  (Perhaps the impact of this report can be seen in  the U.K. court ruling on February 27 that Heathrow airport’s third runway is a legal violation of the country’s climate change commitment under the Paris Agreement.)  Although Absolute Zero  was released in November 2019,  it was debated in the British House of Lords on February 6 , and was the subject of a Research Briefing by the House of Lords Library in support of that debate.

The prestige of the authors also may have contributed to the impact of its ideas. They are members of UK Fires (UK Future Industrial Resource Efficiency Strategy), a research  collaboration between the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Nottingham, Bath and Imperial College London, and funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.  They contend that the UK should aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to absolute zero, rather than the “net zero” target specified in the Climate Change Act 2008 , and by the U.K. Committee on Climate Change in its report, Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming (May 2019) and its 2019 Report to Parliament of the  U.K. Committee on Climate Change (July 2019) .

Absolute Zero  also parts company with the Committee on Climate Change in its view that emerging technologies will not be scalable in time to meet emissions targets by 2050.  It builds its analysis on “today’s technologies”,  striking an optimistic tone while calling for fundamental changes in individual behaviour, government policy, and industrial processes. Some excerpts ….

“We need to switch to using electricity as our only form of energy and if we continue today’s impressive rates of growth in non-emitting generation, we’ll only have to cut our use of energy to 60% of today’s levels….

“The two big challenges we face with an all electric future are flying and shipping. Although there are lots of new ideas about electric planes, they won’t be operating at commercial scales within 30 years, so zero emissions means that for some period, we’ll all stop using aeroplanes. Shipping is more challenging: although there are a few military ships run by nuclear reactors, we currently don’t have any large electric merchant ships, but we depend strongly on shipping for imported food and goods….

“Absolute Zero creates a driver for tremendous growth in industries related to electrification, from material supply, through generation and storage to end-use. The fossil fuel, cement, shipping and aviation industries face rapid contraction, while construction and many manufacturing sectors can continue at today’s scales, with appropriate transformations……

“Committing to zero emissions creates tremendous opportunities: there will be huge growth in the use and conversion of electricity for travel, warmth and in industry; growth in new zero emissions diets; growth in materials production, manufacturing and construction compatible with zero emissions; growth in leisure and domestic travel; growth in businesses that help us to use energy efficiently and to conserve the value in materials…..

“Protest is no longer enough – we must together discuss the way we want the solution to develop; the government needs to treat this as a delivery challenge – just like we did with the London Olympics, ontime and on-budget; the emitting businesses that must close cannot be allowed to delay action, but meanwhile the authors of this report are funded by the government to work across industry to support the transition to growth compatible with zero emissions.”

steel-arising-cover-01_1-1The UK Fires collaboration officially launched in October 2019. It is building on previous  related research,  including the April 2019 report  Steel Arising  which it highlights on the UK Fires website.  Steel Arising   envisions greening of the UK steelmaking industry  by “moving away from primary production towards recycled steel made with sustainable power.”  It states: “Not only will this create long-term green jobs, it will lead to world-leading exportable skills and technologies and allow us to transform the highly valuable scrap that we currently export at low value, but should be nurturing as a strategic asset. With today’s grid we can do this with less than half the emissions of making steel with iron ore and with more renewable power in future this could drop much further.”

U.K. energy workforce will need 400,000 workers to reach net-zero emissions by 2050

building the net zero workforceThe U.K. has a target of net-zero emissions by 2050. A new report,  Building the Net Zero Workforce , forecasts the likely employment and skills impacts of that goal for the energy industry, assuming that it will require a 50% increase in low carbon electricity generation; installation of low carbon heating systems in approximately 2.8 million homes; installation of  60,000 charging points to power 11 million electric vehicles (EVs); and development of  carbon capture usage and storage technology as well as hydrogen networks  – all by 2030. 

To accomplish all this, the report projects that the energy industry will need to recruit for 400,000 jobs between 2020 and 2050 – 260,000 in new roles, and 140,000 to replace those who will be leaving in what is an anticipated retirement crunch. The report forecasts both time dimensions and regional needs, concluding that jobs will be available in all regions of  the U.K. and for a diverse range of skills, “from scientists and engineers, to communications professionals and data specialists.”  More specifically,  “The roles included in this analysis are those involved in the operation, generation, transmission, distribution and retail of energy in the UK, as well as those in the supply chain related to building, upgrading, maintaining or operating infrastructure required to reach net zero.”

The report emphasizes the role of young people and a need to encourage women in STEM professions.  In general, there is a need for training and re-training for the emerging technologies such as AI. The report notes, without details, that : “ By investing in retention and retraining, and working collaboratively with government and unions, the sector can help ensure a fair energy transition, one in which workers of all ages and backgrounds and from every community in the UK can play their part.”

The report was written by an independent research company, Development Economics, under a commission by National Grid, a U.K. organization which owns and operates electricity transmission in parts of the U.K., and invests £7.5 million per year in training.

Climate change and health: U.K. National Health Service launches new campaign for greener health care; more medical associations divest from fossil fuels

England’s National Health Service (NHS) is the country’s largest employer with 1.3 million staff, and its operations are responsible for approximately 4-5% of England’s carbon footprint. On January 25, the Chief executive officer of the NHS announced a new campaign to tackle the global climate change health emergency through a greener health care system.  A website for the new campaign, “For a Greener NHS”, focuses on a goal of a net zero national health service, with an Expert Panel to compile experiences and make recommendations in an interim report due in summer 2020, and a final report scheduled for Fall 2020.  In the meantime, the Greener NHS campaign will encourage such initiatives as switching from coal or oil-fired boilers to renewable heat sources for buildings; switching to less polluting anaesthetic gases and better asthma inhalers in treatment; and introducing technological solutions to reduce the number of patient visits and travel miles.

Another part of the initiative is a grassroots campaign for front-line workers, supported by the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change – which includes representative bodies covering over 650,000 NHS staff, including the union UNISON . The NHS press release quotes UNISON:  “Involving staff is crucial if the NHS is to help the UK meet its emissions targets in good time. They know more than anyone how the health service ticks and so are best placed to make practical green suggestions to get the NHS to where it needs to be.”  Examples of existing staff-oriented programs are described in case studies :  reducing the use of disposable plastic gloves;  an electric bike courier system for delivery of medical and laboratory samples; and a sustainable travel initiative  to encourage staff use of transit, shuttle buses, bicycles and walking for journeys to work.

British medical associations and organizations are also acting at the societal level. In January, the prestigious British Medical Journal (BMJ) published an editorial: “Investing in humanity: The BMJ’s divestment campaign” , which calls on individuals and organizations to act immediately, stating: “Divestment offers health professionals and medical organisations, for the duty is both individual and collective, an opportunity to influence politicians and industry towards behaviours that are better for the planet and people’s health.”  While urging divestment, the BMJ states: ” we will not accept advertising or research funded by companies that produce fossil fuels. We will also explore how else our business might be dependent on fossil fuel companies and take steps to end any such reliance. The BMA has no direct holdings in tobacco or fossil fuel companies.”  (Note that The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. also announced in February 2020 that  it will ban any fossil fuel advertising. ) According to a press release from the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, six constituent groups of the Alliance have announced an intention, or are already divesting, from fossil fuels:  the British Medical Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Faculty of Public Health, the Royal College of Emergency Medicine and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health,  and in January 2020, the Royal College of Physicians .   The Canadian Medical Association has also divested from fossil fuels.

U.K. updates on Just Transition: Statement, Resolutions from the Trades Union Congress, and a training module from Greener Jobs Alliance

tuc 2019 just transitionThe Trades Union Congress (TUC), the labour union central in the United Kingdom,  published  A just transition to a greener, fairer economy­ in July. According to the accompanying press release , the document sets out principles “to take the whole trade union family towards that new economy.”  (This seems to be a reference to the divisive nature of the Just Transition debate during the 2018 TUC Congress, reported by the WCR here ).

These excerpts from A just transition to a greener, fairer economy­ summarize the main demands:

“Companies and organisations moving to a lower carbon model should put in place Transition Agreements – agreed with unions – that cover a range of issues, including the overall number of jobs or workers employed, pay and conditions, job security, working time, job descriptions, duties assigned to job roles, training and skills, apprenticeships, retirement policy, monitoring and surveillance, performance management, health and safety implications and equal opportunities. Companies should also work with unions to identify and deliver best environmental practice at a workplace level.”

….”we’re calling for a cross-party commission on long term energy strategy, involving affected workers, unions, industries and consumers, to set out the path towards clean, affordable and reliable energy. The commission should study the social impacts of the transition, its regional impacts and necessary mitigation measures. Investment – in infrastructure, in new skills for workers, and in services such as public transport – is vital.”

…“Government has a key role in making this happen, as a funder and procurer of new energy and broader infrastructure. When government invests in new infrastructure it should use its procurement powers to ensure that jobs generated benefit workers in the local community and throughout the supply chain. It must also insist that jobs created provide workers with trade union recognition, and that employers have fair recruitment, industrial relations and pay policies for all workers. Companies winning government contracts must adhere to agreed standards of corporate behaviour; for example, contracts should not go to companies based in tax havens and companies must be registered in and pay tax in the UK.”

Trades Union Congress passes resolutions on Just Transition, endorses Student Strike on Sept. 20

The 151st Congress of the Trades Union Congress  was held from September 8 to 11, 2019 .  Understandably, debate about Brexit loomed large over the meetings, but there were several motions related to climate change, most notably Composite Motion 02 Climate crisis and a Just Transition, which was approved on September 10, and resolves: “that the TUC calls for a 30-minute workday campaign action to coincide with the global school strike on 20 September. 2. to campaign for national and regional Just Transition Commissions including full union and education representation to develop, monitor and implement the process.”  An article in The Guardian  also summarizes the Congress vote; the TUC press release on student strikes is herethe University and Colleges Union position on the student climate strike is here

Other climate change related motions at the TUC Congress: “Buses and a green transport system” moved by ASLEF ; “Public ownership of energy” moved by Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union ; and  Securing Green UK Jobs, moved by GMB.

New training module on Just Transition available

Discussions and panels were held at the Fringe Meetings , most notably by the Greener Jobs Alliance , which used the occasion to launch their new, free, online Just Transition Training Module  . Other Fringe sessions included: How Can We Grow The UK’s Aviation Sector whilst Meeting Climate Change Targets?; Action on the Climate Emergency: How Should Trade Unions Respond?; sponsored by the Campaign Against Climate Change, Trade Unionists And Climate Strikes: Responding to the Climate Emergency.