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Political Print: UK dithers in race to zero

Mainstream business groups are agitating for policies that will drive a green industrial revolution, but ministers are still not listening. Nick Hughes reports.

Last month I made an impassioned plea for business leaders who want to see the government adopt stronger sustainability policies to make their voices heard. Perhaps Tony Danker was listening? In a keynote speech delivered at the end of January the CBI director general took dead aim at the lack of a coherent economic strategy for the UK.

It was Danker’s comments on net-zero and the green economy that felt especially significant coming from the de-facto spokesperson for UK plc. Danker described green growth as “by far and away the biggest innovation opportunity in the 21st Century”, but decried how the UK has been “spectacularly overtaken” in the race to unlock these opportunities by other developed economies.

He alluded to research published by the CBI showing how at just 1.2% of GDP UK government spending committed to climate change lags behind other countries including Germany (4.9%), France (2.2%) and the US (1.9%). “We need to send signals immediately to domestic and foreign investors that the UK is the place to invest, right now,” said Danker.

The CBI boss went on to describe as “devastating” the findings of the recent independent review of net-zero published by Chris Skidmore, which concluded that more should be done to reap the “historic opportunity” offered by net-zero. Conservative MP, Skidmore, was commissioned to produce his review by then business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg amid conjecture within the Conservative Party over whether the pursuit of net-zero will make us poorer (and colder) or rather is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to lead a green industrial revolution.

That this debate is still happening in Whitehall goes a long way to explaining why the UK is “falling rapidly behind” in the race for green growth, as Danker put it. Indeed, it’s been apparent for some time that the remaining barriers to the government turbocharging a green industrial revolution lie squarely within the crumbling walls of the Palace of Westminster.

You didn’t have to look far in January for evidence that the UK government’s lukewarm attitude to green issues is at odds with mainstream business consensus. The 2023 edition of the World Economic Forums’s global risks reportincluded a survey of risk experts on the key economic, societal, environmental and technological challenges facing the global economy. Over a 10-year horizon, the health of the planet dominated concerns: environmental risks were perceived to be the five most critical long-term threats to the world as well as the most potentially damaging to people and planet, with “climate action failure”, “extreme weather events”, and “biodiversity loss” ranking as the top three most severe risks.

Meanwhile food security – a subject with which the UK government has only recently begun to properly engage – featured prominently in a briefing to mark the report’s launch. John Scott, head of sustainability risks at Zurich Insurance, spoke at some length on how food security is a critical issue in relation to climate. He noted that about 30% of global emissions come from feeding the 8 billion people on the planet and went on to argue that “there’s a huge opportunity to change the way we feed the world” by moving away from an “oil-based agricultural system with pesticides and agrochemicals driving yields” towards a system based around quality and more locally sourced food. “It doesn’t make sense that you go to your local supermarket and buy a product that comes from 20,000 miles away when you can have something that’s local and seasonal,” said Scott.

One can debate the nuance of Scott’s message (local doesn’t always equal sustainable) but the implicit rejection of a model of food production that has dominated since the Second World War is surely significant.

Last month, a collection of farming and conservation organisations including WWF, the Soil Association and Pasture for Life published what they described as a “consensus on food, farming and nature”. In it, they listed some attributes future food and farming systems should embrace, among which was “breaking the agrochemical dependency”. This is hardly a ground-breaking position for such groups to adopt; what is significant however is how once fringe views appear to be edging closer to the mainstream.

Such is the case too for the ability of ambitious climate action to unlock economic prosperity. Yesterday’s announcement by Rishi Sunak of the creation of a new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero means that net-zero will finally be represented around the cabinet table – not before time. But the naysayers within the prime minister’s own party remain. It’s too soon to say with any certainty that the pathway to the UK’s green revolution has finally been cleared.