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Better days: Why levelling up means net zero

As the race to decarbonise and build Britain’s green economy gathers pace, Environment Journal explores how creating climate-friendly jobs offers an opportunity to address the stark regional inequalities that have haunted Britain for generations.

Levelling Up Net Zero

There’s no two ways around it – the UK is a deeply uneven country. Using one example, researchers at the think tank IPPR North suggest if northern England were an independent nation it would rank second lowest of any OECD country for public and private investment. Only Greece would place lower. By comparison, London now accounts for around 22% of total UK GDP. 

Change is needed, and in one part of the economy that change is well underway. In less than 30 years, policymakers need Britain to reach net zero carbon emissions. A mammoth task, achieving this will involve weaning ourselves off old habits, creating new employment sectors, and expanding areas like renewable energy and electric vehicle production. A green jobs gold rush that can also service the ‘levelling up’ agenda.

‘The transition to net zero involves a real opportunity to function differently as a society, and it will be a missed opportunity not to integrate the levelling up agenda,’ says Bea Natzler, head of the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) People In Business Team. ‘Many of the regions often discussed in levelling up can be key to driving net zero transition. The Government’s Green Jobs Task Force has reported on this. Like how the growth of carbon capture utilisation and storage and low carbon hydrogen could boost employment in industrial clusters such as Humberside and South Wales.

‘From a CCC perspective, we don’t formally assess the Government in relation to levelling up. But we do in terms of policies for net zero transition,’ she continues, making it clear some progress has been made, including creating the Green Jobs Task Force and, more recently, Green Jobs Delivery Group. More must be done, though. ‘It’s important to note that around 80% of the 2030 workforce are already in employment. So, a key part of the green jobs agenda will be reskilling and retraining. Some policies have been brought forward, and these tend to focus on local authorities and employers.’

Levelling up net zero

To make that approach work, there needs to be real clarity at the point of delivery. Or, to put that another way, those being tasked with job creation — councils and private partners — need a good understanding of where long term investment is going in order to gauge what roles they need to fill, and the training required. Natzler points to the urgent need for a net zero action plan, identifying when, where, and in which sectors growth is expected.

More data and evidence is also needed on areas currently experiencing rising demand to understand what specialisms are needed now, and where funds should go. One example is home retrofit coordinators, short supply of which has been blamed as a contributor to the poor uptake of Downing Street’s Boiler Upgrade Scheme. There’s also a clear requirement for a simpler framework around funding, so people can easily find who is responsible for overseeing grants, loans and financial partnerships in specific areas of the green economy. 

ADEPT, the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport — effectively a trade body for leaders in placemaking, transport and more, membership covering around 80% of the UK — has a similar idea. Its Green Jobs Finance Training Programme is specifically aimed at helping us understand where funding is available, who from, and how to access it. According to the organisation’s President, Mark Kemp, currently Executive Director of Environment and Transport at Hertfordshire County Council, this is where the real task lies.

‘One of the big challenges when you’ve written a sustainable action plan is you can bet your bottom dollar you can’t afford to deliver it. Not within the finances you’ve got and certainly not with the current inflation rates. So you need to think about other mechanisms that we can use to deliver against these goals,’ he says, explaining the training programme was also designed with finance staff in mind. ‘We’ve really been asking the Government to give us longer term visibility of funding. That’s probably the most important thing to us.’

Levelling up net zero

‘I think our case studies prove local authorities do have quite a number of powers at their disposal, but as Mark says, it’s the funding to deliver. And local political appetite,’ adds Hannah Bartrum, ADEPT’s Chief Executive Officer, emphasising how crucial it is for Westminster to get the right funding frameworks, training programmes and guidance in place now, rather than in another ten years.

‘It’s absolutely vital. 2050 is not that far away, we’ve got to act now and can’t wait. That’s why we’re saying let’s see what we can do now, regardless of how long it will take central government on many of these items,’ she continues. ‘But I do think for some of this stuff you really need high level government leadership.’

Simon Barber, UK Managing Director of Assystem, has first-hand experience of these issues. The international engineering, digital and project management specialist is creating hundreds of low-carbon jobs in Britain, many in low socioeconomic areas such as Blackburn, West Cumbria and Sunderland. Work ranges from Hinkley Point C reactor to power grid modernisation and expanding renewable energy. 

‘A recent study by the Local Government Association estimates that 46% of the total low-carbon jobs by 2030 will be in clean electricity generation and providing low-carbon heat for homes and businesses. What is apparent is that these new jobs are aligned with a region’s particular skills heritage. The north of England, for example, has strong expertise in generation, storage and low-carbon technologies and processes, especially in nuclear and offshore wind.

‘Currently, the main obstacle to growing the green economy is skills. For Assystem, any programme that matches the energy sector’s skills needs with training in certain locations would be well received,’ he continues, adding that there is also lack of awareness at school age of how the economy is changing, and what this means for career prospects. ‘We need to see greater initiatives to educate young people at all ages, not just those in college or university, about the incredible opportunities that exist in the green economy.’

Images: Assystem (Top) Håkon Grimstad (Middle) / Eran Menashri (Bottom) 

More on net zero and levelling up:

Low carbon energy recruitment drive could level up, but prove divisive

Feature: Is there a North v South divide in EV charging infrastructure?

Net zero investment could be key to realising levelling up agenda

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