The past year has been pretty bad for many things but, asks Jim McClelland, has it been good for the environment?

As the UK economy stumbled forward out of the gloom of lockdown in search of a return to growth, 2021 proved another pretty bad year for many things we previously took for granted, such as traveling, working, socialising and schooling. Given the rise of the climate agenda, however, was it a good year for the environment, asks Jim McClelland?

For Britons in 2021, the environment once again proved one of the top three issues considered the most pressing for the nation.

Surveys of attitudes and views on specifics saw 84% of them supportive of subsidies to make houses more energy-efficient, for instance, plus most even in favour of banning cryptocurrencies to combat climate change.

As well as the general public being broadly and increasingly positive about everything to do with the environment, investment community pockets were also deeper green.

If we hope to build on climate promises, then top of the to-do list for 2022 is green jobs.

Jim McClelland Jim McClelland Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist and speaker

Green finance

There has been much talk about the ‘wall of money’ available for low-to zero-carbon technologies, driven by funds pouring into clean power.

According to BloombergNEF, new investment in renewable energy projects and companies totalled $174bn in the opening six months alone — the highest total ever recorded in the first half of any year.

In fact, the decision by Shell this month to pull out of the Cambo oilfield off the Shetland Isles sent perhaps one of the strongest signals yet that divestment from fossil fuel interests was having an impact on decision-making in business and industry.

Although, as oil company profits shot up to $174bn this year, too, it may simply indicate that there are other parts of the world where drilling can be done cheaper and easier.

Nevertheless, with both consumers and corporates seemingly more on board with sustainability than ever, there is maybe just one other key party left to consider: politicians.

Climate on the up, but money down the mine

In the UK, 2021 was an exceptional year for world summits held on home soil: Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Government took a somewhat bumpy political ride from the meeting of the G7 nations beside the sea in Cornwall, in June; to the global climate jamboree that was COP26, paraded with much fanfare around Glasgow, in November.

The UK presidency of the COP, shone the spotlight strongly on Government policy — prompting aspirational announcements galore.

The back half of the year was particularly busy, with the launch of the UK Hydrogen Strategy in August, then news of the Green Heat Network Fund published in September, followed by the Heat and Buildings Strategy, plus the Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener, in October.

There was also, however, some less welcome publicity for the team in Westminster, notably around conflicting tactics such as the Government initially appearing to condone plans in Whitehaven, Cumbria, for the first deep coal mine to open in the UK for 30 years.

As the date of the COP came closer in the calendar, the Government eventually backtracked, with the local Conservative MP withdrawing his support for the mine and plans ultimately being called in for public inquiry.

The main argument put forward for the development was the much-needed employment prospects it could bring to an area struggling with post-industrial deprivation — and there were clear social and economic benefits to be realised across the community.

The massive problem issue with the proposal, obviously, was the environment — and, especially the climate impacts of such a throwback to the age of the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet.

Indeed, arguably one of the biggest environment issues to surface in 2021 concerned the need to focus on green job creation to support and satisfy transition targets for net zero.

Do the numbers add up on employment?

Take, for example, the widely-held view in the spring that 2021 could be ‘the year of the heat pump’.

This market confidence was very much built on the back of the target for installations announced as part the Government’s Ten-Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution published late 2020, plus the carrot of £5,000 government grants.

The Plan set an ambition for 600,000 heat pump installations per year by 2028. This goal formed part of the overall aim to mobilise £12bn of government investment, plus potentially three times as much from the private sector, to fund up to 250,000 green jobs by 2030.

When you start to crunch the numbers, however, that aspiration quickly comes under scrutiny, given the skills shortage currently in evidence across the sector.

If we say that the average installation time for an air source heat pump might be two days, then 600,000 units a year would require 1.2 million work days from skilled fitters. Working a five-day week for 48 weeks a year, that translates into needing 5,000 teams of two, so something like 10,000 installers in total.

Now, whilst the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) assured the domestic heating industry in May that there were already 3-4,000 qualified installers operating in the UK, industry analysis quickly suggested otherwise.

A Review of the Future Homes Standard prepared by EY for the Independent Networks Association (INA) stated there were in fact just 1,200 installers qualified to fit heat pumps into UK homes.

So, where will the people and the money be found to fill these jobs?

Green job creation: the work starts here

Unfortunately, at first sight, the answer is possibly not in the UK.

According to a report produced in the summer by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), when it comes to green job creation, the UK lags far behind global counterparts and competitors.

As both evidence and explanation of the country’s shortcomings, the TUC pointed out that whilst the UK Treasury barely invests £180 per person on green recovery and jobs, the USA, for example, has plans to allocate over £2,960 per person — over 16 times the amount.

Even in European markets closer to home, figures for the likes of Italy (£1,390) and Germany (£600) surpass the sums put aside here in the UK by many multiples.

So, if we do hope to build on the climate promise of 2021, then the one thing that must be top of the to-do list for 2022 is green jobs.

In every sense, the work starts now.

Jim McClelland is a Sustainable futurist, editor, journalist, speaker