Friday, 6 March 2020

The Challenge of Being Green in a Global Economy

Since the Court of Appeal ruled that the third runway at Heathrow was illegal, as it failed to meet the government’s own commitment to zero carbon by 2050. Other infrastructure projects have come under increasing scrutiny with the campaigner and TV presenter Chris Packham launching a legal challenge to the HS2 rail project.  This problem has been further exacerbated by the collapse of budget airline Flybe and the loss of its regional connections, especially from the cities of Southampton and Exeter.

This produces the problem of how to deal with the need for new transport links, housing and infrastructure while meeting the challenge of climate change. Indeed, as this blog asks, can we be Green at all in a global economy?

First the need. Britain is already densely populated by international standards. At 430 people per square kilometre, it is nearly twice as crowded as Germany (227) people per sq./km) and more than three times as crowded as France (117 people per sq./km). However, this problem is much worse in London, which is 18 times more overcrowded than the rest of the UK.  The need to decentralise and move people away from the capital has never been greater, but London is still the financial capital and fast, reliable transport links are an essential part in minimalising the impact of decentralisation.  

The social impact of overcrowding, particularly in London, is largely to the detriment of our young people.  A study, commissioned by the National Housing Federation shows that 3.6 million people are living in overcrowded homes, 2.5 million cannot properly afford where they live and the same number again are living with parents or relatives against their wishes. Add to this the 1.4 million living in poor or substandard conditions and the lives of one in eight people in England are now negatively affected by years of fast-rising prices and missed house-building targets.

In fact, those building targets are already unachievable, according to the Journal of Housing Economics - July 2019. One home will have to be built every six minutes, night and day, just to cope with the current level of net immigration to England (ONS projections).  At the same time the UK’s countryside, so necessary as the demand for home grown produce and bio-fuel intensifies, will continue to be swallowed up by construction of the extra housing required.

So, the challenge is to meet the desire for a global, expanding economy, with free movement of labour, while maintaining our commitment to be carbon zero by 2050. The impact of this is going to be huge and many, large sacrifices are going to have to be made. The arguments to slash net immigration to ease the pressure on housing and other infrastructure, would still require new transport links to ease social and environmental pressures on our capital and encourage investment in provincial cities.

This is too big a topic for one blog and so, over the coming blogs, I want to explore the options moving forward, learning as I go. My own opinion is that we must accept the need, that is we cannot continue squeezing ever increasing numbers into our cities, The question should be which transport schemes have the best net impact? Not do we need to build this.

One thing I do know is that environmental calculations, like all statistics, are not always as they seem and that sometimes a short term carbon hit can prove hugely beneficial in the longer term, not only for the environment but also to ease the social impact of overcrowding. The UK is far too London centric but making it less so requires investment in our transport network and that will come at a short to medium term cost, both financial and environmental. What we must do, is build robust models, around a commonly agreed standard, that can accurately and credibly predict the longer-term impacts both positive and negative.