The UK gets its first dedicated climate budget: What does it mean for the environment?

UK Budget 2020

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s first UK budget has been laid out. It features a dedicated pot of money reserved for the environment, including investment in certain research options like Nuclear Fusion. Here’s how the 2020/2021 budget will impact the environment.

First, I’ll break down the budget summary statement, before discussing whether the plan devised by the government is truly beneficial for the environment.

How does the budget aim to help the environment?

Under the ‘growing a greener economy section’, the budget outlines that the UK has already cut carbon emissions more than any other G7 country. These include Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, the UK, and the US. The UK was also the first country within this group to legislate for a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Many argue that the UK has still not done enough, but at least it’s leading the race for now.

However, when it comes to clean energy, the budget isn’t particularly clear. Here is a section from the budget summary on clean energy:

“Increasing the UK’s use of clean energy is a vital part of reducing carbon emissions and putting the nation at the forefront of new innovative industries. The Budget announces a Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Infrastructure Fund to establish CCS in at least two UK sites, one by the mid-2020s, a second by 2030.”

The government clearly stated that the use of clean energy is important, then went on to announce carbon capture and storage investments. Carbon capture aims to remove the negative effects of fossil fuel power plants by capturing the carbon. However, it’s important to distinguish that carbon capture is not clean energy.

Furthermore, the budget went on to suggest that cleaner heating of buildings would be encouraged by investing in greener fuels:

“To encourage more environmentally-friendly ways of heating homes and other buildings, the government will also introduce a Green Gas Levy to help fund the use of greener fuels, increase the Climate Change Levy that businesses pay on gas, and reopen and extend the Climate Change Agreement scheme by two years.”

It seems like the UK is planning on sticking with fuels for now, albeit greener ones like biofuel, rather than moving to different, even more efficient sources of heating like air source heat pumps. Increasing the climate change levy seems like a positive, though isn’t the carbon tax that activists are looking for. Additionally, the climate change agreement scheme has been extended, which allows businesses to partner with the government to receive discounts when they reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

However, here’s where it gets interesting. Whilst the UK has been taking a more reactive approach to the climate crisis so far in the budget, their viewpoint on road transportation seems to be more active. As they state, ‘road transport is responsible for 91% of domestic transport emissions, and around 20% of overall UK emissions.’ This is followed up with a plan:

“To support drivers to move away from polluting vehicles, the Budget announces investment in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, which will ensure that drivers are never more than 30 miles from a rapid charging station, provides £532 million for consumer incentives for ultra-low emission vehicles, and reduces taxes on zero emission vehicles.”

Previously, its been left up to large companies like Tesla or Ionity to fill out a charging infrastructure in the UK. These companies are trying to compete with some of the largest companies in the world, like Shell and BP. Not only that, but they’re trying to do that across multiple regions, Ionity in Europe and Tesla globally. This statement in the budget sounds like the government is trying to step in to help these companies compete against the big oil companies, maybe even filling out their own charging grid. The grid will make sure that an electric vehicle owner is never more than 30 miles away from a rapid charger.

The second part of the statement is consumer incentives. Currently, the government provides up to a £3000 grant to anyone who purchases an eligible electric vehicle. It’s not particularly clear where all the £532 million will be going, but we know the government is subsidising the following:

  • cars
  • motorcycles
  • mopeds
  • vans
  • taxis
  • large vans and trucks

The final section of the budget covers air quality. In short, the government is looking to plant enough trees to cover an area the size of Birmingham (1.1 million population), banning the use of red diesel in many industries, providing £304 million to help local authorities tackle nitrogen dioxide emissions and protect the natural environment. You can find the whole budget summary (here)[].

Just above the environmental section, the budget lays out investments in nuclear fusion and electric vehicles.

What does this all mean for the environment?

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) vs Trees

This is not just an investment, it also seems to be a commitment from the government. The budget clearly states that at least two UK sites will be established by 2030. It is unclear how large these sites will be, but if the UK is serious about carbon capture, they’ll have to be big enough to make a significant dent.

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CCS Plant in Canada

Currently, the cost of carbon capture technology is at around £60 to £90 per tonne of CO2 captured. This must then be stored, presumably underground, in a safe place where it will remain untouched for a long time.

CCS companies are currently working with large oil companies to reduce their carbon emissions when mining oil. Sadly, this is not for the sake of the environment, it’s just so that they are allowed to mine more oil. Within the UK, we can hope that this technology will put to good use sucking carbon straight out of the air that we breath.

Trees absorb around 22kg of CO2 per year, and cost around £1 to plant. Furthermore, they can be used as a building material to reduce our dependency on steel and concrete. They also improve out living spaces, whilst reducing the localised temperature in cities. However, CCS can capture much more carbon per unit area than trees, making it much more effective on a large scale.

trees on forest with sun rays
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Nuclear Fusion

Nuclear Fusion is a topic of debate currently. Some say that it is the technology of the future and is essential for the energy generation of future humans. Others say that nuclear fusion is the technology of the future, but that it will always remain the technology of the future, not the present.

It seems as though the UK has taken the first approach. The fact that nuclear fusion is so efficient and can produce so much energy per unit area is just irresistible. If nuclear fusion reactors came to fruition, the they would make other renewable technologies look like old tech.

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However, it’s a risky strategy. Nobody knows if nuclear fusion will ever actually work safely for extended periods of time. Moreover, even if it can operate safely, it must produce more energy than it consumes to make it financially viable, something scientists are currently struggling with.

Either way, the UK has taken two quite experimental strategies, with unknown consequences or rewards. Critics would say that the government should be investing in the technology that is available now, but really, we won’t know which plan worked out to be best until a long while into the future.

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