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Use devolution to drive decarbonisation

The Times Red Box

Britain stands on the precipice of another industrial revolution, but unlike its predecessors it will be directed by government policy and operate to a hard deadline. If we are to achieve net zero by 2050, as we must, the UK will need to decarbonise industries that currently represent a large share of our jobs and growth. We need a plan to green the giants of the economy.

The blunt truth is that we have already picked the low-hanging fruit. The UK is out ahead of most countries when it comes to decarbonisation, having cut back about half our emissions since 1990 through a combination of investment in renewables and offshoring of much of our manufacturing base. What we are left with will be much harder to address.

As research for the thinktank Onward shows this morning, twelve industries together make up nearly three fifths of the UK’s carbon emissions. The list includes vital industries such as aviation, agriculture, manufacturing, steel and construction that we cannot simply jettison as we strive towards carbon neutrality. A fifth of all UK jobs are in these industries. They are disproportionately located in industrial heartlands in the north and the Midlands, which we have both represented, and the new political battleground of Scotland. They generate £1 in every £7 of our output every year.

If they are going to successfully decarbonise, they are going to need some help, and some incentives, from the government. That means taking the steps now to develop the new technologies that will fuel our clean industrial future, not just hydrogen and carbon capture but also direct air capture and bioenergy, adopting the same arm’s-length approach that has been so successful in developing vaccines in the past year.

At the same time, we should be willing to take a more muscular approach to net-zero supply chains. It is illogical that our steel industry is collapsing at the moment when demand for turbines and reactors is booming. The government should mandate that a certain proportion of content in net-zero technologies is sourced from UK supply chains, just as it did in the offshore wind sector deal. This is not about propping up a failing UK industry but about reducing our reliance on heavy goods imports from countries with lower emissions standards than our own.

If we get this right the rewards will dwarf the costs. Onward estimates today that if the government delivers to the Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget, 1.7 million jobs will be generated from the shift to a low-carbon economy, with more than half the jobs created in the north and the Midlands. Hydrogen, bioenergy, carbon capture and storage – these industries may one day have the same cultural resonance in parts of the UK that mining had 50 years ago. But it will require a bold plan, not wishful thinking.

Dame Caroline Spelman is a former Conservative environment secretary; Caroline Flint is a former Labour minister

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