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John Flesher: Achieving net zero will deliver economic rearmament

John Flesher (Head of CEN’s International Programme)

“Why should we bother doing anything when we only produce 1% of emissions?” At first glance, this is an understandable question when considering the UK’s contribution to climate change, but one that fails to recognise the cost of inaction for the climate and our prosperity.

When the UK signed net zero into law in 2019, we were something of an outlier, but since then, the picture has changed dramatically. As things stand, net zero is government policy or a firm legal duty in well over 100 countries, covering more than 90% of global GDP - this includes the very biggest emitters like China, USA and Japan.

This hasn’t happened by accident. Governments adopting net zero policies are doing so because of overwhelming scientific evidence, economic advantages and public demand. And the UK has played a crucial role here too, not just in blazing a trail as the first advanced economy to adopt such a target and showing that economic growth and emissions reduction can go hand in hand, but in using our COP presidency over the last two years to lobby other nations hard on the need to do the same. It’s not just governments acting; a huge and growing number of businesses and investors are throwing billions at decarbonising their own operations and investing in future solutions.

Politicians and business leaders aren’t doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, especially given the challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine; they’re doing it because it makes economic sense. Cutting emissions necessitates massive new industries like green hydrogen, carbon capture and heat pump manufacture; it means creating thousands of highly skilled jobs, many of them in areas away from London and the South East; and it will create fantastic new trade opportunities to export our products and our expertise overseas - all benefits that dwarf our 1% contribution to global CO2 emissions.

But we are in a globally competitive world. Failure to grasp these opportunities won’t just see our environment suffer, but it will mean those new industries, jobs and exports disappear to the many other countries which are ready to pounce and take them. Experts talk about the risk of ‘carbon leakage’ whereby the rush to decarbonise in some countries sees production and emissions moved overseas; but we should be no less worried about what you might call ‘net zero leakage’ too - nations that don’t get on board with serious decarbonisation will see growth and prosperity slip through their fingers.

Even China, which is rightly lambasted for its failure to cut emissions, has already cornered the market on producing solar panels and electric vehicle batteries. Why? Because the Chinese government wants to totally dominate global manufacturing over the coming decades, just as it has in recent years. Unless we want to be economically dependent on countries who do not share our liberal democratic values for these net zero industries, we must lead in developing these technologies ourselves, jointly with our allies.

If we are serious about reaching net zero, then the UK is in a great position to secure first mover advantage in a host of new industries. We have a flexible labour market, a world-leading financial services sector, and a clear direction of travel on government policy - this should be a winning combination as we build a green economy on the way to net zero.

Whoever becomes Prime Minister will inherit a golden opportunity to grasp the economic opportunities of net zero, building on the good work of recent years. And while we should always be ready to debate the costs and the impacts of decarbonisation, all Conservatives should recognise that the pursuit of net zero is no threat - it is a triumph of prosperity over stagnation, security over self-doubt, and the future over the past.


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