Rishi Sunak, charged with delivering Boris Johnson’s slogan ‘build back greener,’ has to save jobs - GulfToday

Rishi Sunak, charged with delivering Boris Johnson’s slogan ‘build back greener,’ has to save jobs

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

John Rentoul, The Inedpendent

It is one thing on which everyone is agreed, which means it is probably either meaningless or wrong. When Boris Johnson declared in his “build, build, build” speech in Dudley that we are going to “build back greener,” he was expressing the consensus view.

The coronavirus-induced recession is a chance to reset the economy to take the climate crisis seriously, say the Conservatives and all the opposition parties in parliament.

They are right about one thing. The lockdown showed how it is possible for governments, if they have public support, to manage dramatic changes in the way people live and work. One of the obstacles to radical green policies has long been that they require changes that seemed impossible unless they were to be long term and gradual: replacing every gas boiler in the country; ending the generation of electricity by fossil fuels; abolishing the internal combustion engine; stopping planes. Well, we have done without air travel for four months now, and for some of us it has been no loss and only gain. The peace of the clear blue London skies has “enchanted the soul”, to quote the prime minister’s speech again (he was talking about planting trees to create a “new patchwork of woodlands”, but the principle is the same).

Yet even Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, who once suggested banning domestic flights in the UK, wants to fill our skies with pressurised metal containers again. Labour’s green rhetoric lasted for as long as it took to criticise the government for doing too little to save jobs in the aviation industry — that is, no time at all. That is the trouble with building back greener. We have been cushioned from the costs of the radical lifestyle changes of the lockdown by the furlough scheme, paid for by unimaginable sums of borrowed money, but that is coming to an end. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, will talk about what will happen next in his “summer economic update” on Wednesday. But he cannot avoid the contradictory political pressures any more than Labour can.

The first thing he needs to do is to try to save jobs and livelihoods, and that means restoring high-carbon sectors such as aviation just as much as low-carbon jobs such as hairdressing. Johnson summed up the problem in a catchy slogan in his speech: “Jet Zero,” his ambition to build the “world’s first zero emission long haul passenger plane”. That sounds awfully like those imaginary green technologies such as cold fusion, carbon capture and storage, or hydrogen power, that have been talked about for ages but not yet invented.

Although the behaviour changes required by coronavirus and those needed for the climate emergency seem similar — not least because they both involve the whole world agreeing to act at roughly the same time — the analogy is flawed. The virus poses an immediate threat to life in a way that the climate crisis does not. Which means that the idea of using the coronavirus recession as a moment to reorder our economic priorities is not going to work. I fear it is as much a piece of wishful thinking on the part of the greens as the idea among some Brexiteers that the trashing of the economy by the lockdown means that now is a good time to trash it a bit more by imposing tariffs on our trade with the EU. The idea that no one will notice the additional loss of jobs caused by EU trade friction because we will be suffering mass unemployment anyway is irresponsible — but the idea of “building back greener” is just as foolish if it means not building back some of the un-green things as well.

Obviously, if there is a choice between restoring a green business and a high carbon one and all other things are equal, Sunak should favour the green option. But most choices are not equal. As the jobs come back, the government may be able to tilt the playing field a little in favour of low-carbon businesses, but there are no short cuts to a greener future.

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