Neil Grundon, Chairman of Grundon Waste Management, says the UK should be leading the way in creating a 21st-century low-carbon industrial revolution.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the government’s nattily named new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero may be something to do with the Treasury’s recent growth forecasts.
The words “net-zero” tempt memories of the infamous “I’m afraid there is no money” letter Liam Byrne, then chief secretary to the Treasury under Gordon Brown, left for his Conservative successor as the Labour government exited 10 Downing Street back in 2010.
I am joking of course, but there is a political point to be made, it is pretty difficult to achieve one without the other.
We saw exactly the fate of the last Labour government when they went around spending like drunken sailors on shore leave, and watch with similar horror as the bills stack up around the Conservative government today.
So how best to square this most noble circle?
One thing is for sure, voters will not have the stomach for any more tax rises… witness the furore surrounding plans by London Mayor Sadiq Khan to expand the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) later this year – even some Labour MPs have taken a sharp intake of breath (clean or otherwise) on that one.
After all, a drive to improve London’s poor air quality is all well and good, but not for the anticipated 200,000 more drivers who will face paying the £12.50 vehicle emissions levy every day or risk a £160 fine.
Meanwhile, Grant Shapps, the recently-appointed Energy Secretary, is already facing a backlash against his plans for a new hydrogen levy to be added to energy bills from 2025.
What can we do to get it right?
Sensible net zero plans have to be championed when they bring wealth and prosperity to a region – not through the redistribution of taxes, but by providing jobs and bringing profitable business to our great towns and regions.
To do that, we need change at a local level – from MPs downwards.
It means MPs supporting ongoing investment in innovation projects, new buildings, new infrastructure (whether that’s better roads to improve transport links), new green energy developments (I include Energy from Waste in this list) and low carbon technologies.
Yes, no doubt, in the short-term there may be some opposition from the NIMBY brigade, but if we are to stand any hope of delivering against 2050’s net zero targets, then these projects are essential.
And to those MPs who want their “backyard” to be preserved in aspic, I say at least be honest about it. Such an approach will probably win them votes, but they shouldn’t dress up their opposition in a faux argument at the same time as probably sitting on the board of a fund or international consultancy doing the same business, only on foreign shores.
I was once told that ‘a lack of a plan isn’t a plan.’
Local authorities shouldn’t be let off lightly either – I was once told that “a lack of a plan isn’t a plan”. Too many local authorities have had developments foisted upon them through the lack of a local plan. That is no excuse, their constituents deserve better, and so does the planet.
We need strong direction, policy and planning, as well as recognition of the challenges we face, and to harness the ability to tackle them head-on.
Sometimes there will be curved balls. Take, for instance, electric vehicles. While a positive step forward in achieving zero emissions, the reality is they need fewer people to make them – hence Ford’s recent announcement that it is cutting 1,300 jobs in the UK alone.
In an ideal world, those employees should be able to turn to new jobs being created in the sustainability sector, but the process can be painfully slow, as evidenced by the fact just one onshore wind farm was built in England last year.
The next steps for the UK
The renewable sector warns that the planning system is a major barrier to speeding up the UK’s shift away from fossil fuels and imported energy. No surprise there.
What the UK needs to do is spearhead technologies that will help the rest of the world leapfrog old carbon-intensive industries, much in the way the mobile phone and cell phones in general leapfrogged telephone wires in Asia and Africa and provided growth at the same time as reducing cost.
I refer to Ben Marlow, The Telegraph’s Chief City Commentator, who said of the impact of Ford’s decision on Britain’s car industry: “The level of reinvention required on the path to decarbonisation is almost akin to starting again.”
That’s true, for British industry this is like starting again – creating our 21st-century low-carbon version of the industrial revolution. The opportunities are huge and the expertise is there, we just need to use them differently.
And if nothing else, perhaps the best thing about the new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero is that with a name like that (check out the Twitter debate on how to pronounce its various abbreviations) at least now they can’t pretend the net zero agenda doesn’t exist.