The absence of green measures was not the only sense in which this week’s budget was a missed opportunity. The failure to address social care was another sign that the government is far more interested in short-term point-scoring than forward planning. But it is hugely disappointing that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, did not choose to make the environment a big theme of this pandemic budget, all the more so in light of the UK’s crucial role as host of the upcoming Cop26 climate talks in November.
The UK is far from alone in failing to deliver the green recovery that climate experts are united in believing is necessary, if the world is to avoid catastrophic global heating. Research on 30 countries shows that the proportion of stimulus spending on green initiatives is even lower now than after the 2008 financial crash. But having previously been a global leader on climate policy, the UK under Boris Johnson now risks sabotaging itself. Mr Sunak’s failure to prioritise green measures, which did not even merit a mention in his glossy pre-budget video, is the worst possible sequel to the government’s shambolic recent record.
The shoddy implementation of the £1.5bn green homes scheme announced last year is a prime example. Reducing emissions from buildings, which account for 40% of the UK’s total, is a key area in which climate progress has stalled. Last year’s announcement of grants to fund low-carbon heating and insulation was therefore welcomed by campaigners as well as installers and householders (low-carbon heating is among the most popular green measures, with 80% support from the climate assembly convened last year by the House of Commons).
But the project flopped, with just 8% of the target of 600,000 homes expected to be upgraded by the end of the month. While the scheme could have boosted jobs as well as reducing bills and emissions, a shockingly bad decision by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to deliver it via a US company based thousands of miles away, in Virginia, led to a situation in which payments and vouchers never arrived and small building firms were forced to lay people off. Nor is this fiasco the only proof of the government’s inadequate grip on climate policy and diplomacy. The row over a planned new coalmine in Cumbria is another own goal, as is the plan to expand Leeds Bradford airport. Huge cuts to international aid budgets are wrong for many reasons, not least the humanitarian disaster in Yemen. But in a year when the international community must work hard to reassure developing countries that they will be assisted with climate finance, the policy is stupid as well as immoral.
The establishment of a new national infrastructure bank in Leeds was among the budget’s paltry low-carbon measures, along with green recovery bonds and funding for one hydrogen power project. The Bank of England will adjust its mandate to reflect the UK’s net zero goal.
Thankfully, there remains scope for further announcements, with a Treasury review due in May. But so far, Mr Sunak appears lacking in vision. Besides the botched green homes scheme, the UK lags behind other countries on electric vehicle charging and cycling infrastructure, while nature restoration remains more a talking point than a policy. The truth is that ideology is the biggest blockage, when the situation demands state intervention on a massive scale. Unless this Brexiter government can admit that the free market on its own cannot fix the climate crisis, any more than it could fix the coronavirus pandemic, the UK will continue to fail.