Britain in 2030

Stronger Together for a green and digital future

  • Report

A stronger green and digital future

vs

the Conservative status quo

A stronger green and digital future

We want a country that takes on the climate crisis and seizes the opportunities of the digital revolution, not one whose leaders duck the big challenges.

With a stronger green and digital future, by 2030 we can:

  • Seize the opportunities of a low carbon and digital economy
  • Radically cut emissions
  • Reverse the decline of nature
  • Buy, make and sell more in Britain
  • Manage a fair and prosperous transition to net zero

the Conservative status quo

The Conservatives aren’t doing enough to tackle the climate and ecological crisis and have no strategy to seize the opportunities of the digital future.

Under the Conservatives, Britain faces the risk of:

  • More climate delay and inaction
  • More missed climate targets
  • Missing out on the green and digital jobs of the future
  • A stark digital divide
  • An unmanaged, unplanned and unfair transition to net zero

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic hit when our country and economy were already undergoing profound change. As 2020 began, we were entering what the United Nations has described as the defining decade for tackling the climate and ecological crisis[1]. The ‘fourth industrial revolution’ was also proceeding at pace, with both turnover and employment growth in the digital sector outstripping the rest of the economy[2].

The COVID-19 crisis put the scale of these challenges into perspective – and showed how we can rise to them.

Over the last eighteen months, we’ve seen incredibly rapid development and deployment of vaccines, showing what is possible when we work together to respond to a crisis. We saw how quickly many firms, working hand in hand with trade unions, used digital technology to change their working practices at astonishing speed to adapt to the new context. We saw teachers and healthcare professionals do the same to enable people to learn and access services remotely. We saw how isolated many people were without the digital connectivity that others take for granted. Locked down in our homes for months at a time, we also all saw the tremendous value of our environment: green spaces and biodiversity that are already severely impacted by climate breakdown.

We know we can rise to the challenges of the green and digital future, and seize its opportunities. British tech is world-leading: our start-ups attract more investment than those in any other European country. Global leaps in foundational technologies such as deep learning, protein folding and semiconductor design have all taken place because of British universities and companies. Nicholas Stern’s review on the economics of the climate emergency, published in 2006 under the last Labour Government, was a watershed moment in focusing the whole world’s attention on the climate crisis[3]. And our green economy is now worth more than £200 billion[4].

But we also know that under this Conservative Government action is already falling a long way short of what is needed and we are already seeing increasing evidence of catastrophic consequences for our people and planet. The UK is off track to meet even the inadequate targets the Government has set to reach net zero. Climate delay is now the greatest obstacle we face. We have lost tens of thousands of green jobs and risk losing hundreds of thousands more. Simultaneously, the digital divide in our country continues to persist, and the prospect of universal broadband access retreats ever further into the distance.

The people of Britain need to see words matched with action. Tackling the climate and ecological crisis must be the defining mission of the next decade. We need a clear strategy to reduce the vast majority of UK emissions by 2030, acting to protect our planet and our children’s and grandchildren’s futures, while seizing the economic benefits that come with a fairer, greener economy. We need to stem the loss of jobs seen under the Conservatives and buy, make and sell more in Britain so that the economic benefits of decarbonisation are felt here at home – with good, unionised jobs spread fairly across the country. And at the same time we need to close the digital divide and give people in every part of the UK the access and the skills they need to navigate and flourish in an ever-changing digital world.

 

The Conservative status quo

The coming decade is crucial to tackling the climate and ecological crisis. The latest findings from the Independent Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were the starkest warning yet that the crisis is here right now and is the biggest long-term threat we face[5]. The extreme weather events of recent months will only become more frequent, and urgent action is required both to drive down emissions and to adapt to and protect communities from the changes to our climate that are already baked in.

The greatest obstacle we face is not climate denial but climate delay. Tackling the climate and ecological crisis requires not just words but action: political commitment, leadership and implementation[6]. While the Conservatives acknowledge the challenge, they are not rising to it; they seem to be in denial about the scale and urgency of the crisis. Instead, they are making it harder to achieve decarbonisation: axing vital home retrofit initiatives, cutting subsidies for renewables and electric vehicles, and privatising the Green Investment Bank. They are toying with opening a new coal mine in Cumbria and approving a major new oil field in the North Sea. As a result, the UK is set to miss its legal climate targets significantly: the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has assessed that only 12% of the emissions reductions we need by 2030 are currently “fully on track”[7]. Electric vehicles are a case in point: by 2030 we will need 433 public charging points per parliamentary constituency for widespread adoption. Right now there are just 32 on average[8].

The global transition to net zero has already begun. Those countries which seize the initiative will both mitigate the worst of the risks and benefit from the most significant of the opportunities. If the Conservatives continue to drag their feet over the course of the next decade as they have during the last, the UK can expect to witness an unmanaged, unplanned, and unfair transition, worsening inequality both in our country and around the world. The OBR has concluded that delaying the transition to net zero by 10 years will double its cost[9]. The people and businesses of Britain cannot afford another decade of Conservative inaction and nor can the planet.

For too long, our country has been held back by a lack of investment in the backbone of a modern economy – the infrastructure of public transport, housing, communications and energy systems – and in our domestic manufacturing industries. And the investment that has occurred has been highly geographically uneven. More delay means we risk losing out on the green job opportunities of the future. Over the last decade the UK has lost nearly 75,000 jobs in green technologies[10], from solar power to onshore wind, renewable electricity and bioenergy, and above all, energy efficiency. Looking ahead, the Trades Union Congress estimates that a further 368,000-667,000 jobs could be offshored from Britain if we fail to meet our climate targets and fall behind other countries on climate action – with jobs in North-West England, Yorkshire and the Humber and the West Midlands being most at risk[11]. The Conservatives’ track record here is ominous, with the Green Homes Grant scheme axed despite the potential of retrofitting to create tens of thousands of jobs; and international comparisons showing the UK as second from bottom in the G7 when it comes to green infrastructure investment[12].

We see a similar picture concerning the digital jobs of the future. The Conservatives have wasted a decade and squandered the world-leading position our broadband infrastructure was left in by the last Labour government.[13] In Spring 2020, only 12% of UK homes and offices had access to full-fibre broadband[14]. Conservative commitments on rollout have been rolled back: their 2019 manifesto promised “full fibre and gigabit-capable broadband to every home and business across the UK by 2025”[15], but within a year of the election that had been scaled back to just 85% of all homes[16] – and now there are doubts as to whether even this will be achieved[17]. Experts estimate that a one-year delay would mean missing out on £10 billion in productivity gains, and a two-year delay would mean missing out on nearly £30 billion. Yet again, the country cannot afford the price of Conservative delay[18].

If our digital sector is to flourish and generate the jobs of the coming decade, we must have a government which backs it with the right incentives for talented people to work here and to encourage investment for innovation and growth. Yet at present we are not making enough of our world-leading higher education sector: UK universities generate lower Intellectual Property-related income, fewer spinoffs and fewer patents than US counterparts for each pound of research resource spent[19]. The Government is set to miss even its modest target on Research and Development investment[20] – an area where we are already below the OECD average and behind countries like South Korea, Germany, the United States and France[21].

On current trends we also risk an ongoing digital divide. There are still 9 million adults in the UK who cannot use the internet, with a stark north-south divide: 53% of people in the North East rarely or never use the internet compared to 35% in the South East[22]. The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced so much of our lives online – from working and learning to accessing key services – has only sharpened that divide. Addressing it is a moral and economic imperative. As Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web, has said: “We cannot afford not to do it”[23]. Yet the Conservatives fail to grasp this, demonstrated by their callous decision to cut allocations of laptops to disadvantaged pupils at the height of the pandemic by 80%[24]. With that attitude, we risk seeing the digital divide still stubbornly in place at the end of the decade just as it was at the start.

 

A stronger green and digital future

The climate emergency is not only the single greatest challenge facing our country; it is also our single greatest opportunity to build a more just and prosperous future.

We need to seize the opportunities of the digital revolution and take on the climate and ecological crisis. We have to act now to transition away from fossil fuels and clean up our environment. We can do this, by ensuring that existing industries such as steel and automotive can transition to a clean future, while also creating new secure, unionised jobs of the future. If we take the initiative and help British businesses and workers prepare, we can secure new jobs in every part of the country.  We should do all we can to back a flourishing, homegrown manufacturing sector, as well as a thriving energy industry with security of supply: led by renewables, nuclear and other low carbon energy sources. We started the industrial revolution – now let’s own the digital and green ones. By harnessing technological change and building it in Britain again, we can make our economy more competitive, our jobs better and our country happier and better off. We need to change how we heat our homes with a range of low carbon heating systems; ensure that we have cleaner air and green spaces for our communities; and deliver public transport for every community.

The UK needs to have cut the substantial majority of emissions and to have reversed the decline of nature by 2030. Our country should be in its rightful position as one of the world leaders in the green economy, not lagging at the back of the G7 pack. We owe it to both current and future generations to act urgently, doing what is needed in the coming decade to avert catastrophe. This will both protect the planet and mean that our children grow up with cleaner air, with our country’s great nature and wildlife restored and flourishing, with warmer and more secure homes, and ultimately – handled properly – with a fairer and more equal society.

Urgent action within the next 10 years would also enable Britain to seize the economic opportunities of the move to net zero. Experts are agreed that clean energy infrastructure investment has the strongest positive impact both on emissions and on our overall prosperity[25]. The Government’s own projections make clear that the low carbon economy could grow 11% each year to 2030, far outpacing the 1-2% growth projected for the wider economy[26], but that will only happen with targeted investment and coordination. As our economy heals from the damage inflicted both the pandemic and the Conservatives’ hapless response to it, we have the opportunity to shape that recovery so that we are both generating good jobs – both in the industries of the future and by supporting our existing industries to decarbonise – and on track to meet our net zero targets. Last year Labour’s Green Economic Recovery report showed how accelerating £30 billion of currently-planned infrastructure spending as a rapid COVID-19 stimulus package could support 400,000 clean, green jobs across the country[27].

We also need to buy, make and sell more in Britain to ensure that the benefits of these new industries are always felt on our own shores[28]. With a strategic steer from Government, our great automotive industry could be world-leading in making the shift to Electric Vehicles (EVs). That requires certainty: that the new gigafactories we need to produce batteries domestically can be rolled out over the coming decade; that EV charging points will be spread right across the country by 2030; and that EV ownership is affordable for everyone, including those on low and middle incomes[29]. By 2030 we need to see British electric cars rolling off production lines in Sunderland and South Wales; British homes powered by domestically-produced wind turbines off the coasts of Scotland and Teesside; and British hospitals, schools and railways built with clean steel manufactured in Rotherham and Hartlepool.

As we make the transition, we need to ensure that public investment yields a long-term return and benefits whole communities. In the 1980s, the Conservatives squandered the economic dividend of North Sea Oil, with communities losing out and distant shareholders making excessive profits. This time, we need to ensure that workers and communities reap the benefits and dividends of the green transition.

The UK is the most regionally imbalanced economy in Europe, and many of our communities still bear the scars of forced deindustrialisation: never again should workers be forced to bear the costs of transition and reap none of its rewards.

It is therefore essential that the transition to net zero is managed, fair, and prosperous so that local communities and workers benefit, with workers and their trade unions leading the change in their workplace and industry. No-one should be left behind. That means Government working with trade unions to make sure that businesses and workers have been supported to adjust; that our country is resilient in the face of future economic and climate-related shocks; and that while we act to address existing inequalities in the labour market we also guard against creating new ones. As the IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission notes, a net zero transition can only be successful if it is “owned and importantly informed by the public … People are experts in their own lives and aspirations. They have experiences and knowledge which are hugely valuable in designing better policy.”[30] We must also prioritise health and wellbeing, so that we are breathing cleaner air and the country’s wildlife and biodiversity is not just preserved but restored and flourishing once more.

Britain needs to be at the cutting edge of technological development if we are to prepare for and benefit from the digital future. That will require being much more ambitious about how much we spend – private and public sector alike – on research and development[31]. The UK led the First Industrial Revolution, and we can still lead the Fourth Industrial Revolution. To do so, we need a serious industrial strategy for the next decade – something which has been so sorely lacking in the decade just gone – to give every region of the country the tools to start, scale and invest in the world-leading digital firms of tomorrow[32]. A key part of that means ending the delay to broadband rollout so that universal access is a reality for people in the UK as soon as possible. Getting that right would mean that there are opportunities in every part of the country as well as the security that comes from having closed the digital divide, with no-one left behind. We should ensure that everyone has the knowledge and skills needed to benefit from technological advancements and to navigate with confidence the online world.

Our green and digital futures are interlinked, with progress on one helping accelerate progress in the other: right now, for instance, the Royal Society estimates that just 2% of the potential for digital technologies to enable greater flexibility in energy demand is being exploited. By acting strategically and in a joined-up manner the UK could be seizing many more green and digital opportunities[33].

[1] United Nations press release, ‘Only 11 Years Left to Prevent Irreversible Damage from Climate Change, Speakers Warn during General Assembly High-Level Meeting’, 28 March 2019,  https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/ga12131.doc.htm

[2] King’s College London Institute for Industrial Strategy, ‘Gearing Up For Digital Transformation: How the UK Digital Strategy can underpin productivity growth’, April 2019, https://www.kcl.ac.uk/ifis/assets/gearing-up-for-digital-transformation-web.pdf

[3] London School of Economics and Political Science Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, ‘The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review’, October 2006,  https://www.lse.ac.uk/granthaminstitute/publication/the-economics-of-climate-change-the-stern-review/

[4] kMatrix Data Services Ltd, ‘United Kingdom Low Carbon Environmental Goods And Services: “Where we were, where we are and where we’re going”’, May 2021, https://kmatrix.co/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/kMatrix_LCEGS_UK_2007_08_to_2020_21_with_forecast_2025_26_final.pdf

[5] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, ‘Climate Change 2021: The physical science basis’, August 2021, https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_Full_Report.pdf

[6] The Institute for Government warns that there has been little sign of political or economic commitment needed to confront these challenges. Institute for Government, ‘Net Zero: How government can meet its climate change target’, September 2020,  https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/net-zero-government-climate-change-target.pdf

[7] Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, ‘Time is Running Out for Climate Policy to Match the Rhetoric’, 24 June 2021, https://institute.global/policy/time-running-out-climate-policy-match-rhetoric

[8] The Economy 2030 Inquiry, ‘The UK’s Decisive Decade’, May 2021, https://economy2030.resolutionfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/The-UKs-decisive-decade.pdf

[9] Office for Budget Responsibility, ‘Fiscal Risks Report’, July 2021, https://obr.uk/docs/dlm_uploads/Fiscal_risks_report_July_2021.pdf

[10] Official figures show a loss of 33,800 direct jobs and a further 41,400 jobs in the supply chain for low carbon and renewable sectors between 2014 and 2019. Labour analysis of Office for National Statistics data, Low Carbon and Renewable Energy Economy (LCREE) Survey direct and indirect estimates of employment, UK, 2014 to 2019, 22 April 2021, https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/environmentalaccounts/adhocs/13181lowcarbonandrenewableenergyeconomylcreesurveydirectandindirectestimatesofemploymentuk2014to2019

[11] Trades Union Congress, ‘Safeguarding the UK’s manufacturing jobs with climate action: carbon leakage and job’, 12 September 2021, https://www.tuc.org.uk/research-analysis/reports/safeguarding-uks-manufacturing-jobs-climate-action-carbon-leakage-and-job

[12] Trades Union Congress, ‘UK government lagging far behind G7 peers in green jobs and investment plans’, 1 June 2021,  https://www.tuc.org.uk/news/uk-government-lagging-far-behind-g7-peers-green-jobs-and-investment-plans-tuc-report

[13] When the last Labour Government left office in 2010 it left behind fully funded plans for basic broadband to be delivered to all within two years and superfast broadband to 90% by 2017. House of Commons Library, ‘Superfast broadband in the UK’, 4 March 2021, https://researchbriefings.files.parliament.uk/documents/SN06643/SN06643.pdf

During the decade since then, we’ve seen huge delays in the roll-out of second and third generation fixed broadband and we are now close to the bottom of OECD tables. Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, ‘Broadband Portal’ Table 1.10, accessed 22 September 2021, https://www.oecd.org/sti/broadband/broadband-statistics/

[14] Royal Society, ‘Digital technology and the planet’, December 2020, https://royalsociety.org/-/media/policy/projects/digital-technology-and-the-planet/digital-technology-and-the-planet-report.pdf

[15] The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2019, p.28: https://assets-global.website-files.com/5da42e2cae7ebd3f8bde353c/5dda924905da587992a064ba_Conservative%202019%20Manifesto.pdf

[16] HM Treasury, National Infrastructure Strategy, November 2020, p.31: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/938049/NIS_final_web_single_page.pdf

[17] House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, ‘Improving Broadband’, December 2020, https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/4156/documents/55519/default/

[18] Computer Weekly, ‘Potential near £70bn boost to British economy from gigabit broadband’, 27 April 2020, https://www.computerweekly.com/news/252482199/Potential-near-70bn-boost-to-British-economy-from-gigabit-broadband

[19] World Intellectual Property Organisation statistical database, https://www.wipo.int/ipstats/en/statistics/country_profile/profile.jsp?code=GB

[20] Financial Times, ‘UK set to miss R&D spending target after funding cuts, researchers warn’, 15 March 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/997e702c-94ad-4937-befd-7c3f82d1756e

[21] Cambridge Industrial Innovation Policy, UK Innovation Report: ‘Benchmarking the UK’s industrial and innovation performance in a global context’ , February 2021, https://www.ciip.group.cam.ac.uk/reports-and-articles/uk-innovation-report/download/UK_Innovation_Report_FINAL_EWv10.pdf

[22] University of Manchester, ‘Experts call for action to be taken to tackle the UK’s digital divide’ 11 May 2021, https://www.manchester.ac.uk/discover/news/experts-call-for-action-to-be-taken-to-tackle-the-uks-digital-divide/

[23] BBC News, ‘ Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee warns of widening digital divide’, 12 March 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-56367719

[24] The Guardian, ‘ Laptop allocation for England’s schools slashed by 80%’, 24 October 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/oct/24/englands-schools-to-receive-fewer-laptops-for-distance-learning

[25]Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, ‘Will COVID-19 fiscal recovery packages accelerate or retard progress on climate change?’, 4 May 2020,   https://www.smithschool.ox.ac.uk/publications/wpapers/workingpaper20-02.pdf

[26] Office for Budget Responsibility, ‘Economic and Fiscal Outlook 2020’, March 2020, https://obr.uk/efo/economic-and-fiscal-outlook-march-2020/

[27] Labour Party National Policy Forum, ‘Labour’s Green Economic Recovery’, November 2020, https://labour.org.uk/page/green-recovery-report/

[28] Labour Party, ‘Labour will make, buy and sell more in Britain’, 2 July 2021, https://labour.org.uk/press/labour-will-make-buy-and-sell-more-in-britain/

[29] Labour Party, ‘Ed Miliband calls for an electric vehicle revolution for every part of the country to boost car manufacturing industry and create jobs’, 24 March 2021, https://labour.org.uk/press/ed-miliband-calls-for-an-electric-vehicle-revolution-for-every-part-of-the-country-to-boost-car-manufacturing-industry-and-create-jobs/

[30] Institute for Public Policy Research, ‘Fairness and Opportunity: A people-powered plan for the Green Transition’, July 2021, https://www.ippr.org/files/2021-07/fairness-and-opportunity-final-report-summary-july21-web.pdf

[31] Labour Party, ‘Chi Onwurah responds to news that the UK is set to miss its R&D spending target after funding cuts’, 15 March 2021, https://labour.org.uk/press/chi-onwurah-responds-to-news-that-the-uk-is-set-to-miss-its-rd-spending-target-after-funding-cuts/

[32] Labour Party, Our Digital Future Consultation, August/September 2020, https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Our-Digital-Future-Consultation.pdf

[33] Royal Society, ‘Digital technology and the planet’, December 2020, https://royalsociety.org/-/media/policy/projects/digital-technology-and-the-planet/digital-technology-and-the-planet-report.pdf