Build Back Greener? Environmental policies post COVID-19

27 November 2020. Published by Sarah Herniman, Trainee Solicitor

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus and the difficult year that has ensued, many have pointed to the environment as a potential silver lining.

The aviation industry ground to a halt which led to a significant reduction in carbon emissions, noise pollution levels plummeted, and the amount of people using cars significantly decreased. However, there has been a reduction in recycling and a surge in single use plastics. There is also a worry that once the pandemic is over, or the restrictions are eased, there will be a surge in travel.

The jury is out therefore on whether there will be a net gain or loss for the environment due to the pandemic.

Nevertheless, encouragingly, some countries have taken this opportunity to pledge spending packages on environmental policies to support a green recovery. For example, Germany has pledged £36 billion to invest in the environment and the UK has pledged a £3 billion spending package titled the "Build Back Greener" initiative. At the Conservative Party Conference, Boris Johnson laid out this spending plan in his keynote speech. This article looks at some of these initiatives and how they can support economic regrowth in the post-COVID landscape.

 

Offshore wind

Offshore wind was the star of Boris Johnson's keynote speech and is a central tenet of the UK's environmental policy. The UK is the world's largest user of offshore wind power, roughly 10 gigawatts (GW) of capacity is installed. The UK government has announced a further £160 million package to bolster offshore wind technologies and has increased its offshore power generation target from 30GW to 40GW by 2030.

Offshore wind energy is essentially the use of 'fields' of wind turbines, which have been constructed out at sea, to harvest wind energy to generate electricity.

Most offshore wind farms use infrastructure which is fixed to the ocean floor. However, a rapidly developing technology in this area is floating wind turbines. Floating wind turbines are intended for use in deep water areas, where it is more difficult to embed turbines into the seafloor. They are still in the early stages of development, but they could prove crucial in bolstering the UK's, and the world's, renewable energy capabilities.

This government's investment pledge will see around 2,000 construction jobs created and the sector will be able to support 60,000 jobs directly and indirectly by 2030. The scheme will invest in manufacturing in Teesside, Humber and Scotland and Wales.

There has, however, been some criticism of these proposals. Conservation groups (backed by Joanna Lumley) have urged that the rights of animals need to be protected during the course of constructing windfarms. One particular danger is unexploded munitions that lie  on the seafloor (as remnants from World War 2). These bombs have to be located and detonated in order to clear space for windfarms and this has the potential to harm marine life. Campaigners are therefore calling for these bombs to be cleared in a safe and considerate way to protect the ecosystem 

 

Green Investment Bank

A second initiative, which is steadily gaining momentum, is a reboot of the government's green investment bank. The initial Green Investment Bank was formed to encourage investment in clean infrastructure projects such as carbon capture and hydrogen. It was sold in 2017 to the Australian bank Macquarie, only 5 years after it was formed. This was a widely criticised move amongst environmental campaign groups. Kwasi Kwarteng, the energy minister, has announced that plans to launch a Green Investment Bank 2.0 are on the horizon.

Additionally, there is growing academic support for green investment, for example Aldersgate Group recently published a report recommending that a state-backed green investment fund could boost Britain's green recovery following the pandemic. The report recommended that individuals who are left unemployed by the pandemic could be deployed in low carbon industries. Furthermore, they recommend a long-term framework for low carbon investment using a rising carbon market price to incentivise private investments.

 

Road to Zero?

The UK Government has recently announced it intends to implement a ban on the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars from 2030. This ban has been brought forward from 2040. The government are driving (pardon the pun) this switch through various incentives, for example the Plug-in Car Grant, congestion charge discounts, vehicle tax exemption and other tax advantages for companies.

There have however been concerns that the National Grid will be unable to cope with the switch to electric cars. However, Graeme Cooper, the director of the National Grid, has advised that it can cope with a rise in demand. The National Grid estimates that electrifying all cars would require less than a third more energy than Great Britain's current demand of 300 terawatt hours, which Cooper believes the Grid can cope with.

There have also been concerns about how the new road infrastructure required for electric vehicles is going to be built and maintained. Currently, it is paid for by duty on fuel and vehicle tax based on emission levels. However, electric cars don't use petrol or diesel and they generate negligible emissions. One suggestion is that motorists should pay for each mile they travel. However, that will necessarily involve the installation of GPS 'black boxes' in all vehicles, to which some will object on the grounds that it is a further infringement of our civil liberties.

 

A Greener Future?

The consensus appears to be that the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the move to a greener, more sustainable use of the world's resources. However, that move necessarily entails scrapping and replacing old infrastructure with new infrastructure on a massive scale, which in some cases is in the relatively early stages of development. There will be very significant cost associated with this move and the risk landscape, both in a financial and physical sense, will change in ways that it is not possible to anticipate at this stage. The road ahead will be exciting, but it will also be challenging.