Climate change

Plastics and climate change: unwrapping the evidence

As numerous organisations, institutions, and individuals announce plans to go ‘plastic free’ - or at least reduce their plastic use - momentum around the issue of plastic waste, much like plastic itself, has not gone away.

With the Government considering further measures, such as banning plastic straws, it is worth examining in depth the wider environmental implications of moves towards a more ‘plastic free’ society.

Through their connection to fossil fuels – in both production and transportation - plastics make a significant contribution to man-made climate change, accounting for 6% of global oil demand and rising US methane emissions from associated gas extraction. Yet the interaction between tackling the twin problems of plastic waste and plastic’s contribution to climate change is potentially more complex than first appears.

Plastic pollution and climate change

Plastics are produced through ‘cracking’ and refining fossil fuels, whereby the fossil fuel - either gas or oil – is broken down into constituent hydrocarbons and re-forged into plastic resins.

The production and transport of plastic causes carbon emissions, although estimates vary as to the exact carbon footprint of plastic, in line with variation in production methods. The Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable, a coalition of global beverage companies working to improve sustainability in the sector, estimated that one 500ml plastic water bottle (about 10 grams) has an average total CO2 footprint of 82.8 grams. For context, the production of four plastic bottles produces approximately the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as travelling one mile in a medium-sized petrol car.

Turning to the emissions from the general production of plastic resin, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has put forward an estimate of over 1.15 grams CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions per gram of plastic resin produced. If transport and other associated emissions are included, plastic resin causes roughly 1.5-3.3 grams of greenhouse gas for every gram produced in total.

Plastic production has risen from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 381 million tonnes in 2015, with only 9% of plastic discarded since 1950 estimated to have been recycled. Production is set to increase substantially, reaching 34,000 million tonnes by 2050.

Rising plastic production will exacerbate both the problems of litter and climate change. By 2050, the plastic industry is predicted to account for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With around 8 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the oceans every year, this not only represents a significant hazard to the marine species and human health, but considerable wastage of resources and inefficiency.

Recycling and a circular economy

Recent studies have suggested that plastic alternatives, such as paper bags, have a significantly higher energy footprint than those created from virgin plastics. In contrast, emissions from recycled plastics are significantly reduced relative to both paper and virgin plastic production, generating significant energy, financial, and resource savings. This fact bolsters the much broader case for a more efficient, 'circular economy' approach.

A circular economy is an alternative to the traditional, linear, 'make, use, dispose' structure, with resources (defined in terms of materials, water, energy and carbon, as well as natural and social capital) kept in use and at their highest value for as long as possible, reducing waste and improving efficiency.

Its main advantages include energy savings and insulation from potential raw material supply and price shocks. The Environmental Services Association suggested that a more circular economy could increase UK GDP by £3 billion a year, with a 2011 study for the Government suggesting £23 billion of economic benefits from low or no cost improvements available to businesses in the UK.

In terms of plastic, a circular economy approach emphasises recyclability, with a particular focus on increasing recyclable packaging and infrastructure. However, the extent of possible plastic recycling is limited, with some estimates suggesting only a maximum of between 36-56% could be recycled at current technology levels. Likewise current UK recycling rates have recently stalled, with some plastic items - such as the notorious disposable coffee cup - not easily recyclable and rejected by variable local recycling guidelines.

But achieving a perfect circle is difficult, with potential leakage into the environment particularly concerning for plastic, given its adverse impacts on marine species and ultimately human health. This underscores the need to develop and deploy biodegradable plastics and alternative materials.

Alternative materials

Biodegradable plastics include a broad range of materials - some biological and others petrochemical based - which can undergo 'normal' thermal decomposition into different compounds.

However, such materials are significantly more expensive to produce than standard plastics. Likewise in some cases they require specific conditions in which to safely decompose, with 'biodegradable’ not necessarily the same as ‘compostable’. As a result, they do not necessarily eliminate litter-based pollution problems, meaning that demand reduction policies, as well as measures to encourage less harmful alternative materials, should be considered.

Alternative materials such as cotton or stainless steel both have significant energy footprints. Their main advantages are their long-term reusability and the low risk they present when accidentally introduced into the ecosystem. 

The longer life-span of reusable items therefore goes some way to mitigate the short-term drawbacks of higher energy consumption. Additional carbon emissions can in turn be mitigated through the continued decarbonisation of the electricity supply and the development of carbon capture and storage technology.

Supply and demand

As shown by BP's announcement that the plastic reduction drive has the potential to reduce oil demand, it is clearly possible to tackle both problems simultaneously.

Environmental policymakers should be wary of unintended consequences. As policy and media attention continues to focus on how to address public concern over plastic pollution, its concurrent impact on climate change should also be a primary consideration. A joined-up - not single-issue silo – approach, therefore, is essential.

Philip Box is a researcher at Bright Blue

Can aviation be sustainable?

The UK has the largest aviation network in Europe, contributing more than £22 billion to the UK economy and directly providing hundreds of thousands of highly-skilled jobs. It ensures the links that enable people to work, to learn and to explore the world.

In 2016 over 250 million passengers travelled on an aircraft in the UK, and further growth is expected over the coming years. However we recognise that our activities impact the global and local environment. If we are to grow, we must do so in a sustainable way.

Sustainable Aviation is a coalition of airlines, airports, aerospace manufacturers and air navigation service providers working together to achieve sustainable growth, reduce noise and CO2 emissions, improve air quality and secure the benefits to society that aviation undoubtedly brings.

At the end of 2017 we launched a report outlining the progress we have made over the previous two years. It showed that we have successfully disconnected UK aviation’s rate of growth from that of carbon emissions and are on track to delivering our target to halve net CO2 emissions by 2050, compared with 2005 levels.

How will we achieve our targets?

Technology will play a central role. The UK is a world leader in aerospace manufacturing, and since 2005 470 new, more fuel-efficient aircraft entered service with UK airlines, saving at least 20 million tonnes of CO2. We have seen a further 2% increase in aircraft fuel efficiency since 2014. UK aerospace manufacturers are continuously investing in the cutting-edge technology for the even more fuel-efficient aircraft of the future.

Sustainable aviation fuels also have the potential to play an important role in achieving the UK’s ambition to reduce carbon emissions from transport. Our road map identifies the potential for a 24% reduction in aviation carbon dioxide emissions, the generation of £265 million in economic value and the creation of 4,400 jobs in the UK over the next 15 years, with between five and 12 operational plants producing sustainable fuels by 2030. Many of these initial sustainable fuels can be made from waste products, including non-recyclable household waste, offering the potential to address two issues at once.

Our airspace is little changed since it was designed in the 1960s. It does not allow us to maximise the innovative technology that is on today’s aircraft. Since 2014, 90,095 tonnes of CO2 have been saved through incremental changes to the structure of UK airspace. However, a wider, more fundamental redesign is needed to enable a reduction of up to 14% in CO2 emissions.

Market based measures will also support the delivery of our target. Between 2012 and 2015, six million tonnes of CO2 emissions reductions were made by UK airlines through the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). Our members have also long been advocates of an industry-wide carbon deal for aviation, and fully support the new carbon offsetting scheme for international aviation (CORSIA) agreement reached by the UN body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). It means that from 2021, airlines will be required to pay to reduce CO2 emissions through qualifying offset projects around the world, capping net CO2 emissions at 2020 levels.

Our vision for the future

Over the course of this year we will set out our vision for aviation in 2050 and beyond, looking at the innovative and emerging technologies on the horizon which could have a potentially transformative effect on our industry, including electric-hybrid aircraft.

Ours is an innovative and vibrant industry, and we continue to explore new thoughts and ideas from both within and outside.

We can’t achieve sustainable growth without the support and action of government. The industrial strategy and aviation strategy are good opportunities for government to take a proactive approach in this area. We urge the government to be ambitious and positive about what the industry can achieve, and how it can continue to support our economy.

Dr Andy Jefferson is Programme Director at Sustainable Aviation

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

Global challenge, local leadership: a Scottish perspective

Scotland is widely considered of one of the global leaders on tackling climate change and enhancing our environment. We have some of the most ambitious targets in the world and this is to be welcomed. However, it is time that Scotland set aside the notion that missed targets and slipping deadlines are something simply to be accepted. For example, despite having some of the most stretching recycling targets in the world, Scotland has a worse recycling rate than England and lags even further behind Wales. Scotland is facing a biodiversity crisis with Scotland’s rating on the Biodiversity Intactness Index in the bottom fifth of all countries.

The Scottish Conservatives recently set out our commitment to deliver a more sustainable Scotland in a new environment and climate change policy position paper. We believe in protecting and enhancing our natural heritage. We believe it is our duty to the next generation to leave Scotland a better place than we found it. A Scotland that builds and heats more homes without destroying green space or polluting our planet. A Scotland where we work with our farmers and communities to restore our landscape. A Scotland where every person and every place can see the benefits of cherishing our vast natural capital.

At a time when the global economic demand and environmental systems are under intensive and competing strain, a new approach is required, we can no longer consume our natural resources at the current unsustainable rate, and we can no longer think of economic development as a competing force against environmental protection.

The Scottish Conservative approach to the environment and climate change is founded on three key tenets. The first is a belief that climate change is a critically important issue, and one for which we must show leadership on the world stage in order to achieve results. The second is that, in the long term, resource prices will increase and access to these resources will become less reliable. By decreasing our reliance on products which are manufactured abroad we can reduce global emissions but also grow the economy here in Scotland. The third tenet is that we need to look holistically at our management of the environment. That means making the business case but also recognising that for certain projects the business case will not be viable if assessed via conventional accounting. Therefore, we recognise a role for natural capital in order to progress key projects. We will prioritise achieving behaviour change, technological advancement, big data and innovation in order to tackle climate change, boost biodiversity, grow the economy and ensure new ideas are delivered for the benefit of Scotland.

We have put the circular economy at the heart of everything we do. The circular economy is an economic system where resources are used for as long as possible at their highest utility value in order to extract the maximum benefit from them. For Scotland, this would create more, higher skilled jobs, close the productivity gap as well as help to reduce income inequality. For Scottish businesses, the implementation of circular economy business models will improve their ability to control supply chains and manage long-term costs, turning inputs into assets.  For consumers, this will provide opportunities and flexibility to reduce and manage the costs of products and services. For the environment, it can minimise negative externalities and help play a part in minimising our carbon footprint. The bottom line is that a circular economy will be a win for businesses, a win for consumers and a win for the environment.

To successfully transition to a circular economy, we need to refocus current government intervention. Government leadership on technological advancement, education and behaviour change, and the creation of a Centre for Circular Economy Excellence will together help to achieve an estimated, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, £3 billion economic boost. A Design Academy will stimulate innovation and become a catalyst for embedding circular economic practices and thinking into the design sector. This will cover system, product and business model design. We will support the design of new technologies that enable innovative asset tracking, data management, reverse logistic solutions and connectivity. New business models will be encouraged around renting, leasing, servitisation, remanufacturing and reuse. We will take a cohesive approach to delivering all business support functions provided by government.

A Circular Economy Education and Skills Academy will encapsulate a schools’ programme which will engage with pupils across a diverse range of disciplines to highlight the opportunities a circular economy presents. In the tertiary sector, the Academy will link diverse research topics to speed up the pollination of innovative work. Development of key skills such as engineering, repair, remanufacturing and circular economy accounting will also be important in realising our circular economy plans.

We must also do more to support biodiversity given that Scotland is blessed with a rich and diverse range of flora and fauna. We will take a three-step approach – understand, safeguard and enhance. Information is the key to protecting our natural heritage, and that is why we will tackle the existing gaps in knowledge by establishing a Biodiversity Baseline. Crucial to that process will be working alongside key stakeholders to involve them as full partners and leverage their expertise.

We take a broad view of safeguarding our biodiversity across Scotland, from the great glens to suburban Scotland. Our approach will introduce new agricultural methods to support the environment, halt the spread of invasive species and effectively manage deer. We want to go further than conservation and see our biodiversity enriched. Our towns and cities will be improved by the creation of new greenspaces, and our countryside will see the increased restoration of natural habitats.

Our approach will provide Scots with a greener and more pleasant land to call home. We set ourselves this task because it is one of the greatest challenges of our times. It is for this generation to rise to the occasion and ensure that the next will live in a better, more productive and more sustainable world. It is time for local leadership to meet this global challenge.

Maurice Golden MSP is the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (ECCLR), Deputy Convenor of the ECCLR Committee and Scottish Conservative Deputy Chief Whip. Prior to being elected, he led the Circular Economy programme for Zero Waste Scotland. He is a Chartered Waste Manager and Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. His recent portfolio paper sets the Scottish Conservative vision to provide local leadership for our global challenge

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

A turbo-charge statement for electric vehicles

This week’s Autumn Statement brought some good news for proponents of electric vehicles. With lower than expected tax receipts and a worsening economic outlook due to Brexit, the Chancellor did not have much cash to give out. The new spending that he did announce was focused on infrastructure, a long-term approach that he hoped would be rewarded by increased tax revenues in the future.

This is intended to tackle one of the fundamental weaknesses of the UK economy that the Chancellor rightly identified in his speech: Poor productivity growth. ‘Productivity’ measures how much economic value is created from a fixed period of labour. Strong productivity growth signals long-term wage rises and economic growth. Concerningly, under this crucial metric, the UK lags well behind Germany and the US by some 30 percentage points. Infrastructure investment helps to improve productivity. For instance, investment in transport can reduce workers’ journey times, freeing up space in the day for more economically productive activity.

The Autumn Statement measures

This is where electric vehicles come in. As part of the £23 billion National Productivity Investment Fund, £390 million of funding over the next four years will be spent on developing future transport technologies. This includes £80 million for electric vehicle charging infrastructure and £150 million of support for low emission buses and taxis.

In addition to this new spending, there were several tax changes to incentivise uptake of electric vehicles. Companies will be given 100% first-year capital allowances for investments in new charging infrastructure until 2019, allowing businesses to deduct the cost of new charge points from their corporate tax bill. And although the Chancellor heavily pruned back salary sacrifice schemes in his statement, the perk was retained for schemes supporting electric vehicles. There were also changes to company car tax, creating lower bands for electric vehicles.

What should come next?

Bright Blue has two further policy recommendations that would drive uptake of electric vehicles, at little additional cost to the Treasury. First, the current plans for five Clean Air Zones in Derby, Nottingham, Birmingham, Leeds, and Southampton should be expanded. Earlier this week, the Government was told by the High Court it had until April 2017 to draw up a new draft air quality plan, as the previous one took too long to bring the UK into compliance with the legal limits.

We recommend devolving more funding and powers to city councils to enable all of them to set up Clean Air Zones where pollution is a problem. As well as charging the most polluting vehicles, Clean Air Zones will give preferential access to city centres to electric vehicles, such as priority at traffic lights and designated parking spaces. Academics have found that, in Germany, where there is a national network of over 70 low emission zones, owners of older, polluting vehicles have traded them in for cleaner ones. So a network of Clean Air Zones could stimulate the electric vehicle market in the UK too.

Second, this week’s Autumn Statement extended the lifetime of the UK Guarantees Scheme until at least 2026. Under this policy, the Treasury guarantees loans to private sector investors, giving them access to capital to fund new infrastructure. Since it was launched under the Coalition Government, it has given out £1.8 billion of guarantees, supporting over £4 billion of investment. We believe these loan guarantees could also be offered to drive investment in a network of charging points for electric vehicles.

Why is this important?

Accelerating the electric vehicle revolution offers many potential benefits, in addition to improving air quality. The Government is currently drafting its Emission Reduction Plan, which will set out how the legally-binding carbon budgets will be met. Transport now has the highest carbon emissions of any sector in the economy. What’s more, these emissions have actually risen for the past two years. Electrifying the car fleet would help the government make progress in decarbonising this stubbornly high-emitting sector.

Boosting electric vehicle uptake is also likely to be a key plank of the Government’s forthcoming industrial strategy. The UK is already the largest market for electric vehicles in Europe. Nissan, for instance, has invested over £420 million in the UK to build its electric vehicle, the Leaf. In 2015, the number of electric cars on the roads globally surpassed a million, more than doubling the total in 2014. This was also the year when electric vehicles’ market share of new purchases in the UK rose above 1%. Electric vehicles are a major economic opportunity for the UK to seize.

Electric cars are still near the start of their journey. But, as a result of the Chancellor’s measures this week, they have moved a few miles further towards the destination.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue

We’ll always have Paris

This week, delegates from almost 200 countries are gathering in Marrakech for the next round of UN climate talks. There are many reasons for climate diplomats to be cheerful. Last year’s Paris Climate Agreement, signed by all those countries, has come into legal force over a year earlier than planned. All the major emitters, including the US, China, India, and the EU, have now completed domestic ratification of the treaty. The global economy seems firmly set on a trajectory towards net zero emissions by the end of this century.

But despite these successes, there are several major challenges facing attendees in Marrakesh: how to increase individual emission pledges, how to raise sufficient climate finance, and how to respond to President-elect Trump.

Ratcheting up the ambition

Signatories to the Paris Agreement pledged to limit average global temperature rises to well below two degrees and to aim for a rise of just 1.5 degrees. Yet the Intended Nationally Defined Contributions (INDCs), voluntary pledges by individual countries of how much they would cut their emissions, are not sufficient to achieve these high-level goals.

Ahead of the summit in Marrakesh, the United Nation’s Environment Programme released a report on the ‘emission gap’, which is the deficit between the INDCs and the long-term goals. They find that current pledges will lead to an average warming of around 3.2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. They also calculate that, under current INDCs, both the 1.5 and 2 degrees ‘carbon budget’, the total amount of carbon that can be emitted before temperatures rise above a certain level, would be easily exceeded by 2030.

In the text of the agreement, there is a resolution to begin a dialogue in 2018 on progress towards the 1.5 and 2 degree targets. Another key feature of the Paris deal is that signatories must reassess and increase their individual contributions every five years to help ensure the high-level goals are met. The first occasion this will happen is in 2020. So there are mechanisms for scaling up pledges, but urgent progress is required.

Securing climate finance

The support of developing countries for the Paris Agreement was contingent on securing sufficient funding to help them mitigate and adapt to climate change. A total of $100 billion per annum by 2020 must be raised by developed countries. The UK Government this week released a statement showing that funding currently stands at $62 billion per annum, up from $53 billion in 2013. The UK’s own contribution is set to rise to £1.76 billion by 2020.

Donald Trump has said he will cancel the United States’ payments to this fund. President Obama had pledged to give a total of $3 billion by 2020. Assuming Trump follows through with this election pledge, replacement finance will now be required, as well as the outstanding amount.

Managing President-elect Donald Trump

During his election campaign, Donald Trump pledged to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. But as the ratification process was so swift, he is unable to cancel the treaty altogether. In fact, reports have suggested the possibility of Trump as President helped instil the urgency to bring the treaty into force. In theory, the US would have to wait four years before it could leave, but in reality, there is little to stop him disregarding the emission reduction pledges made by President Obama. In addition, Trump has promised to “end the war on coal”, and review the current regulations helping to drive coal off the system.

Nevertheless, strong economic forces, as much as political will, are now helping to drive decarbonisation. The rapidly-falling costs of low-carbon technologies have made renewables as cheap as, if not cheaper than, traditional fossil fuels. The International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that costs of onshore wind have fallen by 30% between 2010 and 2015, and those of solar by two-thirds. Independent analysis for the UK Government this week show that onshore wind and solar will both outcompete gas on price by 2025. This may help keep the US, and indeed the rest of the world, on a low-carbon trajectory in the absence of presidential leadership.


Even before the election of Donald Trump, the challenges of matching action with ambition and raising sufficient climate finance were significant. When President Obama hands over to President Trump, an important galvanising force for international climate action will be lost. But other major climate leaders are now emerging. China actually castigated candidate Trump in November 2016 for his intention to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Countries like India and China are clear that they are pursuing their own self-interest by championing climate action. Decarbonising helps India to cut its air pollution, with pollution in parts of New Delhi currently five times the level considered safe by the US’s Environment Protection Agency. Similarly, China sees a major economic opportunity both from increased low-carbon infrastructure spending and from becoming a leading exporter of low-carbon technologies.

Post-Paris there is both a political framework for scaling up ambition and an economic imperative to be at the forefront of the low-carbon transition. Despite Trump, the delegates in Marrakech can be optimistic.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue

Holding back the tide on flooding

The imminent arrival of winter means a renewed deluge of political interest in flooding. For the few days or weeks when these extreme weather events occur, they inevitably dominate the national media. But, as the waters recede, so does the political interest in the subject. As a result, it can be difficult for policy-makers to sustain the momentum required to introduce policies to tackle the problem.

The risks and potential harm from flooding are significant. As well as damaging businesses, homes and infrastructure, it can endanger human life. Take the example of last year’s floods: The Association of British Insurers estimated their members would pay out around £1.3 billion in flood-related claims. The Local Government Association estimated councils faced £250 million of damage to local infrastructure. Storm Desmond, the weather system that caused the flooding, also claimed three lives.

Nor was this a one-off: academics have found that this kind of flooding event is being made 40% more likely by climate change. A warmer climate enables the air to hold more moisture, which increases the likelihood of flooding. Flooding is already a major environmental challenge, and is going to get worse as average temperatures continue to rise.

Forecasts of the future impact of flooding are stark. In its last Climate Change Risk Assessment in 2012, the Government forecast that the average annual cost of coastal and flooding damage will rise from around £1.3 billion now to as much as £6.8 billion by 2050. In its report this summer, the Committee on Climate Change modelled a scenario where average temperatures rise by 4°C. In that case, they predict that the number of at-risk households would rise from 860,000 today to 1.9 million by the 2050s.

Land management

One strategy to reduce flooding damage is to slow water flow from the uplands where rivers form to lowlands where population centres are. These upland floodplains can in effect store excessive rain water.

There is academic evidence to suggest planting more trees further up a river’s catchment area can help to slow flow rates of water. Rewilding Britain recently called for tree planting in areas where overgrazing has denuded landscapes of natural forest cover in order to assist flood management.

Dredging of rivers is similarly important to upland catchment management. In 2013, the Environment Agency published a review of the academic literature on dredging, which found no clear evidence that lower water levels from dredging led to reduced flood risk. On the other hand, they did find good evidence that dredging increased water flow rates, increasing flood risk downstream. This evidence was disputed by some commentators in the aftermath of the Somerset floods in 2014.

The Government’s National Flood Resilience Review, launched after last winter’s flooding, tested how well the UK’s infrastructure would cope with a 20-30% uplift in extreme floods across the UK, relative to last winter. As well as ordering key assets to be reinforced, the report highlighted the importance of the 25-year plan for the environment, due next year, in the context of flood risk management. The plan will enable a ‘whole river catchment’ approach to be adopted.

Other policy responses

In the aftermath of flooding events, debate often centres around levels of public spending for flood defences. Last year, there was a disagreement between the Government and the Opposition over whether there had been cuts or not. Comparing the spending envelope for the whole 2005 parliament and the 2010 parliament, there was a real-terms increase from £3.1 billion to £3.4 billion. However, the spending wasn’t evenly distributed over the parliament, with some years seeing a spending reduction relative to previous years.

The Environmental Audit Committee’s recent report criticised these big fluctuations in spending within a parliament and the often reactionary nature of those decisions. Dieter Helm has called for funding to come from a flood levy on water bills or council tax. He argues this would depoliticise the issue, facilitate a ‘whole river catchment’ approach, and create a more stable revenue stream to fund investment in flood defences.

There have also been calls to change the National Planning Policy Framework to prevent unnecessary building on flood plains. This was one of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee’s recommendations in the last parliament. Despite being in the 2010-15 Coalition Agreement, this policy was not implemented. Now, with the supply of housing so constricted, further limits on housebuilding would be politically difficult, and risk undermining one of the Government’s other key policy objectives.


Flooding has major economic and environmental costs, which policy-makers should seek to mitigate. But flood risk management also presents opportunities. There are potential actions that both strengthen flood defences and improve the natural environment.

It is likely following the EU referendum that the UK will withdraw from the Common Agricultural Policy. Former Environment Minister Richard Benyon MP has suggested using a portion of this funding to pay farmers to hold back water. This could involve planting trees on their land or using fields as flood plains. Such an approach is worth serious consideration, and could deliver benefits for flood mitigation and the environment simultaneously.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue

Polar bears, face paint and protest: why young people don’t care about climate change

I’ve been a climate change communicator and campaigner for over a decade, and recently I delivered a keynote at the Shell Powering Progress Together Conference at London’s Olympic Park.

An unlikely mix you might think. But not really.

There are three things which attracted me to speak at this event: complexity, cost and collaboration.

Before I explore my motivation and message, we need to evaluate why current communications on climate change aren’t working.

Climate change is perceived to be dull. Very dull. If you want to kill a conversation, just drop this climate-bomb in there and watch it wither. Climate change is not a fascinating topic for anyone outside of the niche bubble of climate geeks. By the majority of people, it is seen as a distant threat in time (its impacts are perceived to be at least a generation away) and space (its impacts are perceived to be happening to faraway, dehumanised landscapes like Antarctica or to communities so unrelatable to western lifestyles like rice farming villages on the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta). It is a concept which is seen as far removed from everyday life and ‘action’ on climate change is seen as punitive rather than liberating with the likes of carbon taxes, stricter standards on everyday products and the guilt associated with waste and consumerism.

There are countless reasons behind why the climate message isn’t resonating with people. However, the one which I am increasingly seeing as a barrier to people, especially young people, engaging with climate action is its long-standing association with activism and protest. Climate activism is seen as a preserve of the far-left, and protest is discarded by many as idealistic and ineffective. This long standing association between climate change and hard-core activism discourages many from engaging with climate change, and I feel this is even more true for millennials.

As a group, millennials are actually quite conservative: economics tops the list of our concerns, and as a result we are a very financially prudent generation. As Fiona Scott, Managing Director of consumer engagement agency PSONA, put it in a recent Evening Standard interview: “the 24/7 coverage of the recession means [young people] are very driven and at the same time also very entrepreneurial”.

We are entering the working world in one of the most competitive environments seen for generations: globalisation is speeding the world up and there are increasing pressures to achieve. Gym culture is thriving; vanity is increasing; and the hedonism of youth is being replaced by hard work. Entrepreneurship is exciting, and the images of the entrepreneur and of the activist couldn’t be more polarised. 

This disassociation with activism brings me on to my three ‘C’s which framed my message at the Shell conference. We need a radical rebranding of climate change, as it is actually extremely compatible with millennial values. You’re currently reading this article on a green conservatism microsite so these ideas probably won’t be entirely new to you, but acceptance of these features is far from universal.

Firstly, we have to acknowledge that tackling climate change is difficult. Very very difficult. And the simplified adversarial battle of attrition between ‘the people’ and ‘the powers that be’ who profit from the high carbon system only exists in the minds of some activists. We have built our entire civilisation on the foundations of cheap fossil fuel and now those foundations are shifting. There is not a simple solution to the transition as it is wound up in issues of national competitiveness, cost, technology, politics and science. Transitioning to the low carbon way is necessary, as we know, but difficult and we need to acknowledge that messiness.

That said, the transition is also a fantastic engine for innovation and enterprise. The future path to a low carbon world is not clear to see but this means there is room for trailblazers and new systems, which offer health, security and cost benefits alongside environmental ones. To communicate this new climate narrative, we need to banish the idea that tackling climate change is this grand battle of good versus evil.

Secondly, saving the world can actually be very profitable. The production price of renewable energy tech is plummeting, and after the Paris Climate Agreement new investable markets are opening up. Likewise, consultancies are genuinely transforming the sustainability of corporations throughout the entire supply chain. Now that the low carbon economy is starting to show how profitable it can be to go green, I expect more millennials to be attracted to the industry.

At the moment, I see an increasing dilemma in young people between having a career which is more of a lifestyle and fits their core values (generally associated with start-up or freelance culture) and a more traditional, safe and prestigious corporate job (yet often bland and stale). The dilemma is that although the former initially seems more attractive, it also has poor income stability and hubs of innovation such as London aren’t getting any cheaper! As traditional employers embrace sustainability (and similar internal culture changes which accompany this more modern mind-set), I believe they will also attract and retain young talent. Those of us who are already involved in the emerging and profitable industry of sustainability need to do more to get the message out there, show young people the opportunities for innovation and start getting excited about how you can change the world and make a living. Essentially the eco movement needs to take some lessons from what the tech industry has become.  

My final point is about meaningful collaboration. This is not so much about getting together with peers and friends but more about reaching beyond your current circles and getting radically new working groups. Mixing the very siloed domains of activists, business people and politicians. The echo chamber of social media exacerbates these views. There is an increasing need to break the chamber and bring these different groups together in order to achieve transformational change. In particular, I believe more work needs to be done to bring together activism and business. Activism has the vision and the passion for change but lacks the realism, business on the other hand has the economic pragmatism and experience but can be stale and un-imaginative. Combining these worlds offers an opportunity to make significant headway on tackling climate change. The private sector is showing increasing engagement with climate change after COP21 and seeing that sustainability action makes business sense. It is now up to activists to cast aside protest and opposition as a means of driving change and work collaboratively with business and politicians. This is not to say activists should stop pointing out social and environmental wrong-doing when they see it, but rather the general attitudes to genuine cooperation need to shift. 

The adversarial nature of climate change activism needs to change in order to attract more young change-makers to the issue of climate change and the future of energy. Discussing and debating with others who hold different views is an excellent start.

David Saddington is a climate change communicator. A white paper from Shell’s Powering Progress Together London event, including David Saddington’s contribution on youth engagement in climate change and business, will be available soon. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

Story-telling: making the case for climate action

For two months this year, electricity generation from UK solar eclipsed that from coal. Granted, it was in the summer, but it is nevertheless significant to see the future overtaking the past. To energy policy experts this isn’t surprising: July was sunny, and coal is viewed as a poor investment. But when I mentioned this to a friend over the weekend, her response was one of perfect confusion: “So, why don’t we ever hear the good news about renewables?

Faced with austerity, policy experts and commentators focussed on proving the business case for investment and intervention in the low carbon economy. This should not have been difficult: the sector continued to grow rapidly even after the 2008 crash, turning over £121.7 billion in 2013 and employing 460,600 people. Energy efficiency is a particularly impressive performer in productivity terms – responsible for around 94,200 jobs and a disproportionately high £7.3 billion of Gross Value Added to the wider economy.

We have the hard economic modelling to back this up, showing that ambitious decarbonisation can outperform business as usual in terms of future economic growth (an increase of UK GDP by 1.1% in net terms, with average householders financially better off against business as usual scenarios where little is done to reduce emissions).  With around 45% of all new energy capacity worldwide now renewable, we thought we had spotted an opportunity for the UK to lead the next global industrial revolution – and we thought the numbers more than justified supportive policy and government investment.

In reality, a positive economic narrative alone has failed to get the job done. The Committee on Climate Change recently warned government that there is a growing gap between our commitments on climate change and what government policy will deliver.  Instead, we need to reach people emotionally about what decarbonisation looks like, speaking to their values as well as their wallets – as a more detailed look at energy efficiency policy should tell us.

Investments in energy efficiency offer big returns. Consumers benefit from bill reductions and there are wider social gains, such as a reduction in NHS admissions for respiratory illnesses following the retrofit of the homes of vulnerable people. A mass-retrofit of UK buildings would offer better value for money as an infrastructure commitment than High Speed 2. Yet, shortly after the last general election, subsidies for products and regulatory standards for new homes were scrapped. The indignation of industry, policy experts, and campaigners focussed on the economic short-termism of the cuts. The numbers added up. What more could have been done?  

Well, it’s possible that we were all having the wrong argument – or at least the right argument in the wrong way. Climate change communications tend to be negative, with the solutions often presented as a “loss” rather than a “gain”. For energy efficiency, for example, consumers have been concerned about lost loft space, the cost of installation, or changing ‘the feel’ of their homes. Psychological research has shown that negative or reactive messages can undermine trust in the long-term; not only do negative stereotypes prevent immediate action but they also stick, and undermine the wider case for change.

People with centre-right values are more likely both to believe negative misconceptions about low carbon solutions and to reject overall climate change messaging which they view as “doom-mongering”. The absence of a distinctively centre-right vision for climate change action might go some way to explain why greater doubt exists among Conservative MPs about climate science than for parliamentarians in other parties.

All of this suggests that we need to reach a broader audience, with a language and set of values that work for all voters. Without this, relying on numbers will not be enough to win the argument for rapid decarbonisation. Fortunately, the messages already exist – they have just gone unnoticed, as returning finally to energy efficiency again can illustrate.

As I write this I am sitting in WWF’s headquarters, the Living Planet Centre, in Woking. It is built using the cutting edge of low carbon, energy efficient technology. When we show guests around it, we focus on the business case for the building – we talk about the operational savings that come from switching to a ground source heat pump, or how much energy our solar panels generate on a given day. We talk, too, about some of the building’s secondary impacts, as part of the urban regeneration of Woking, or the improved wellbeing and productivity of our staff.

But what we often forget to do is point out that The Living Planet Centre is just a better building than most new buildings. It is also beautiful, an upturned ship of glass and wood which sits back into the green landscape of canal and heritage Surrey woodland. We should be able to make a case to the British public to say: “The changes we need to make to decarbonise our lives are also changes that will improve our lives - they will be more socially positive, economically beneficial, and (on occasion) more beautiful than sticking with the way we do things now.” We need story-tellers now, as well as economists.

Emma Pinchbeck is Head of Energy and Climate policy at WWF UK

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

We need a new Green Deal

One of the first achievements of Theresa May's new government was to secure the passage through Parliament of the fifth carbon budget. This committed the UK to reducing emissions by 53 per cent between 2028 and 2032 relative to 1990 levels. It was an important demonstration that our cross-party consensus on tackling climate change will continue. But how is the government going to make good on this now legally binding ambition?

Twenty-two percent of the UK's carbon emissions currently comes from heat and power used in homes. The Committee on Climate Change does not think that there is a cost-effective path to decarbonisation without eradicating these emissions. Owner-occupiers are the biggest sector in the housing stock. They also have the worst energy performance. Yet since the scrapping of the Green Deal in 2015, there has been no scheme to incentivise home energy improvements. That's why today Bright Blue is today publishing a new report proposing fresh policies to cost-effectively stimulate this market.

The first set of improvements that should be prioritised are energy efficiency measures, which reduce the amount of energy homes consume. Good progress has been made on installing cheaper measures, like cavity wall insulation, but for more expensive measures, like solid wall insulation, there is still much further to go. The Committee on Climate Change believe that around 10 per cent of the UK's carbon emissions could be mitigated cost-effectively through improving the energy efficiency of residential buildings.

The second set of improvements that should be prioritised are decentralised renewables, which decarbonise the remaining electricity and heating supply. For electricity, there is now about as much small-scale solar power in the UK as a large power station generates. Much of this uptake has been driven by falls in price. Renewable heat has seen slower progress, with just 2.5 per cent of our heating demand met by low-carbon sources. The Committee on Climate Change believes this heating figure needs to be at least eight per cent by 2020 if we are to achieve a cost-effective route to decarbonisation in 2050.

The government's previous scheme to incentivise these measures in the able to pay market, the Green Deal, is widely regarded to have failed. When the Green Deal launched in 2013, ministers predicted 14 million homes would be improved by 2020. Yet the reality was no way near that. Just 15,000 Green Deal plans had been signed by the time the scheme ended last year.

The Green Deal allowed households to fund improvements by a loan that was repaid through energy bills. This attractive off-balance sheet financing was made unappealing as a result of high interest rates and the long average payback period. In addition, the 'Golden Rule' limited the size of the loan such that repayments could not exceed the amount that was being saved on bills from the measures. As a result, the average Green Deal loan was just £3,500 - insufficient to finance expensive measures like solid wall insulation or heat pumps.

Bright Blue is making a number of recommendations for how these deficiencies with the Green Deal can be overcome.

First, the government should introduce new 'Help to Improve' loans and ISAs. The government should underwrite loans to households to finance an exciting package of home energy improvements including energy efficiency measures, decentralised renewables, battery storage, and smart appliances. The interest rates would be considerably lower than under the Green Deal, because the government has much cheaper borrowing costs than private lenders. In Germany, where there is a similar scheme to the one we are proposing, every €1 of public money spent on the programme earns the Treasury €4 in additional taxes and reduced welfare spending. A new Help to Improve ISA should also accompany this policy, to encourage households to save for improvements.

Second, the government should introduce new regulation to ensure there is consumer demand for home energy improvements and to give the supply chain confidence to invest. Homes should be prevented from being sold if they do not meet minimum energy performance ratings. Building regulations should also be amended to ensure that any general renovations, such as constructing a new conservatory or an extension, do not increase the home's overall carbon emissions.

The new government is currently drawing together its emission reduction plan for the end of the year. This will set out how it intends to meet the legally-binding fourth and fifth carbon budgets, in a way that is cost-effective and guarantees energy security. Incentivising more home energy improvements in this sector should be a top priority.

Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue and co-author of 'Better homes'

This article originally appeared on BusinessGreen and can be viewed behind the paywall here.

Filling the coal mine

Coal will go down as one of the most significant resources in the UK’s industrial, economic and social history. First mined shortly after Roman times, it powered the industrial revolution and moulded the UK into the world’s economic powerhouse through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.

However, it is not always widely appreciated that UK coal production actually peaked in 1913 and has been in decline ever since. In 1970, coal generated about two-thirds of all electricity, but in 2015 it generated just over a fifth, and government policy is for coal-fired power stations without carbon limiting technology to close by 2025.

By contrast, civil nuclear power is at the exciting early stages of a resurgence, after many years where there was a combination of a dash for gas and lack of investment in the UK’s energy infrastructure. As the 16GW nuclear new build programme gathers pace, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd MP has said that nuclear is “central to our energy secure future”, whilst noting “unabated coal is simply not sustainable.”

Not sustainable because it is a finite, polluting resource which the developed world is turning its back on. The outcome of international climate talks in Paris last year clearly illustrated this trend and showed how countries are working together to combat the growing effects of climate change and air pollution. Nations are now searching for their perfect energy mix to maintain economic growth and security of supply, at the same time as reducing carbon emissions. 

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet for solving the energy mix question, but for many countries coal is no longer even part of the answer. With 80% of our heating coming from gas in the UK, it will continue to play a significant role alongside renewables and nuclear. Interconnectors, demand management and storage technologies will continue to develop too. It is a complex picture, but one which requires a nuanced and balanced response.

The advantages of renewables are clear but, because of their inherent intermittence and with no large scale and low-carbon industrial storage option likely in the foreseeable future, it means nuclear power remains a necessity because it generates the baseload, low-carbon power required to keep the lights on and our economy flourishing.

The drive for secure, reliable and low-carbon alternatives mean the north will also look to another one of its distinguished industries to help provide the energy for the Northern Powerhouse.

Ever since the end of the Second World War, the nuclear industry has provided the north, particularly the north-west, with high-skill, high-value careers. Sellafield, once a secretive munitions site, deliberately hidden from the Luftwaffe, is now a hive of activity with over 10,000 employees on site working to decommission the vast and complicated site. Significant progress has been made in recent years and Sellafield, once seen as a relic of the sector, is being transformed by new innovations in nuclear decommissioning. Skills and expertise, which are nurturing a specialism that is world renowned, are being exported to Japan and into other international markets.

Next to Sellafield, NuGeneration is finalising its plans to build three new reactors to help power the north. Based in Manchester, the joint venture between Toshiba and ENGIE aims to build 3.8GW of new nuclear capacity in Cumbria on its Moorside site. The project will create tens of thousands of new jobs and supply chain opportunities, not only in the north of England but across the UK. It will also generate sustainable careers when operating, and provide surrounding communities with low-carbon, secure electricity for at least 60 years.

Nuclear reactors are nothing new in the north of England. Calder Hall, Hartlepool and Heysham 1 and 2 have powered the north since 1957 and will continue to until at least 2030 when Heysham 2 is scheduled to shut down. Stations which have provided jobs for over a century and avoided the emissions of millions of tonnes of CO2. The potential of small modular reactors, currently under consideration by the Government, presents even greater manufacturing and supply chain opportunities that will benefit industry in the north of England.

While unabated coal continues to decline in its significance as an energy source, the nuclear sector represents a great opportunity for the north – both in complementing other ways of generating electricity as the distinction between electricity and energy demand is eroded, but also in providing long-term, skilled employment in construction, operation and supplying components for those power stations. Nuclear energy is not just a necessity, it is also an opportunity.

Tom Greatrex is the CEO of Nuclear Industry Association

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.