On 3rd February Onward hosted a discussion, in partnership with OVO Energy, exploring the challenges and trade-offs of tackling climate change during our recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and featuring high-profile panellists.
The event was chaired by Onward’s Will Tanner. The panel included Rt Hon Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP, Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth; Adrian Letts, CEO of OVO Retail ; Jack Harries, filmmaker and environmental activist; Mathieu Flamini, environmental entrepreneur and former professional footballer; and Emma Gatten, Environment Editor for The Daily Telegraph.
Summary of discussion
The discussion centred on the relationship between two of the defining challenges of our time – rebuilding our society and economy as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and responding to the systemic threat of climate breakdown. The panel explored how we can, in the words of the Prime Minister, “build back better” from the pandemic and use the recovery to spur the transition to a net zero economy. Key questions included how we can maximise the opportunities the transition will provide, the importance of maintaining public support, and how the UK can use the upcoming COP26 conference later this year as a springboard to inspire, and lead, practical global climate action and policy.
In her opening remarks, the Rt. Hon. Anne-Marie Trevelyan MP reaffirmed the need to focus first and foremost on “supporting individuals and businesses through the pandemic”, but was clear we need to build on areas of strength to go “further and faster” towards net zero. The Minister outlined the steps the Government is taking to achieve this, as outlined in the Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. She described how the Lifetime Skills Guarantee and Green Jobs Taskforce will support those in industries most at risk of disruption from decarbonisation. She underlined the need to ensure that the costs of the net zero transition are split fairly between households, businesses, and the taxpayer.
In the discussion after opening remarks, the Minister defended the Government’s recent approval of a new coal mine in Cumbria, arguing that we should consider the decision “in the round” alongside the need for coke and coal in steel production to support the manufacture of wind turbines and other low carbon technologies. The alternative would be to import these substances, she said, which would raise questions of carbon leakage to other countries.
Adrian Letts discussed how, despite the pandemic, the world has seen “raised ambitions from the EU, China and the USA” and that global appetite to tackle climate change has not dampened. He warned that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have yet to fully hit and stressed the importance of “maintaining support for the green agenda” amid further economic turmoil. The most effective measures, he said, “will be those that give consumers choice, end barriers, and provide a lower cost to zero carbon living”. For OVO this means looking at policies “that will accelerate decarbonisation on a micro (kWh) scale”, such as retrofitting homes with heat pumps, energy efficiency measures and EV charge points.
Jack Harries stressed how “the COVID-19 pandemic is not separate from the climate crisis, but is yet another symptom of our broken system”, and represents an “opportunity to transform all elements of society”. He outlined his past activism and spoke about the public support for net zero amongst the younger generation, who he described as “scared, angry and done wasting time”. In response to a question on the best ways to communicate the positive advantages of the net zero transition in the face of disruption, he proposed better communicating the opportunities and benefits the transition may provide such as cleaner air, healthier lifestyles and the chance for a fairer society, rather than focusing on the sacrifices that will need to be made.
Emma Gatten focused on the need to maintain public support for decarbonisation in both the short-term – during our recovery from the pandemic – and in the long-term, through any disruption the net zero transition will cause. She noted the widespread support for net zero “across the board of socioeconomic groups, despite the narrative that it is a red wall / blue wall issue”. She also underlined the importance of “building in trust at a very early stage” by ensuring the transition is as simple and painless for consumers as possible; for example ensuring the replacement of gas boilers is as uncomplicated as possible to encourage uptake. She remarked that the Cumbria coal mine decision is “a short term decision” and questioned, “in the long term is it going to get us where we want to be?”. Emma also spoke about how public opinion may falter if the transition is seen as unfair. In this regard, she noted that COP26 will be an important vehicle in ushering other countries into climate action, so that people do not “feel as though they’re doing all of the work” whilst other high polluting countries fail to act.
Mathieu Flamini, who co-founded GF Biochemicals, spoke about the need to break down the issue of climate change and communicate it in a way that is accessible to everyone, to ensure public support remains strong. Engaging the public in this way will make it easier to make them part of the solution, he said. He also spoke about framing the individual benefits of taking climate action, such as lowering obesity levels by reducing red meat consumption. In response to a question on accelerating innovation within the fuel and chemical industries, he spoke in favour of market-based instruments such as the introduction of a carbon tax. In addition, he discussed the need for supporting emergent low-carbon technologies during their introduction to the market, until they become high-volume commodities which are price-competitive with existing products.
The discussion was streamed live through Zoom and Twitter, attracting an audience of 250 people live. The full recording is available on our YouTube channel here [LINK] and embedded below.
The event follows the launch of Onward’s Getting to Zero programme in January. The launch event, with new Secretary of State Rt Hon Kwasi Kwarteng MP is available to watch here. [LINK]. If you are interested in submitting evidence to Onward’s Getting to Zero research into decarbonising incumbent industries, please visit our website [LINK]