Secretary of State Grant Shapps: 23 October 2021
Is it possible that Northumberland – the cradle of George Stephenson’s ingenious railway, Josephine Butler’s tenacious suffrage, and the prodigious talent of the Charlton brothers – can also claim to be the home of climate activism?
We all know of Northumberland’s beautiful scenery, and the region’s deep affinity with our natural world. It’s little surprise that the architect of the English Garden, Capability Brown, or chronicler of our native birds, Thomas Bewick, hailed from here.
But in 1873 the Natural History Society of Northumberland, Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne published one of the earliest warnings of environmental harm. Cataloguing the ‘remarkable’ trees of the region, it details the impact of chemical pollution on nature, and sounds the alarm on the dangers of unchecked industrialisation on our planet.
Next week our country has the privilege of hosting COP26, the biggest environmental conference in UK history, when leaders and officials from almost every country on Earth will gather in Glasgow to focus on one overriding objective: agree a solution to climate change.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. On their current trajectory, global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will fall well short of levels needed to address rising temperatures. If we are to limit those rises to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels – as agreed at the last conference in Paris six years ago – we must halve worldwide emissions in this decade.
We should summon the spirit of Northumberland’s pioneering naturalists. If the problems were clear to our forefathers in 1873, then it’s abundantly clear that we have acted too slowly. Nothing must distract us from tackling climate change as a matter of supreme urgency.
We must put the world on an irreversible course towards decarbonisation. That’s why the UK was the first major economy to legally commit to net zero by 2050. It’s also why we published a comprehensive UK Transport Decarbonisation Plan earlier this year, putting the industry on a pathway to net zero emissions by the middle of the century. And it’s why this week we set out a landmark Net Zero Strategy to unlock £90 billion in private investment and create 440,000 green jobs by 2030.
I know these huge figures can seem dizzying. People rightly want to know what they mean for local communities, such as those in Northumberland.
First of all, they present an incredible opportunity. The very substance of our economy is shifting as the shoots of emerging green industries begin to replace jobs in older industries. Soon it will be changing faster and more radically than at any time since the Victorian era, and the North is already playing a leading role in that transformation.
Take the Port of Tyne, for example. Once the home of shipbuilding and coal exporting, it is now one of the winners of the recent £23m Government-funded Clean Maritime Demonstration Competition. The “Clean Tyne” project aims to create a blueprint for decarbonising our ports, and is being led by a joint venture bringing in expertise from across the North East, including Siemens, Newcastle University, the Local Enterprise Partnership and an accelerator called the Connected Places Catapult.
Another great example is the North Sea Link, the world’s longest under-sea electricity cable, transferring green power between Norway and Blyth, which began operating at the beginning of the month. The developers of this pioneering project estimate that the North Sea Link will help the UK reduce carbon emissions by 23 million tonnes over the next decade. Once it’s fully up to speed, it will serve up to 1.4 million homes with electricity.
It’s a brilliant piece of engineering, and fiendishly clever. Because green sources of energy, like hydropower in Norway and wind power in the UK, are subject to changing weather conditions, the new cable will allow this country to export renewable energy when wind power is high, or import energy from Norway when we need it and their hydropower stations are more productive.
The Nissan car plant in Sunderland is another example of how a traditional industry in the North East is changing. Built in the 1980s, it has produced millions of petrol and diesel engine cars. But now it is moving to manufacturing zero carbon electric cars in preparation for 2030, when new petrol and diesel cars and vans will no longer be sold in this country.
This week the Government committed an additional £620 million to support the UK’s transition to electric vehicles, on top of £1.9 billion we announced in last year’s Spending Review. The additional funding will support the further rollout of charging infrastructure, with a particular focus on local street charging, and targeted plug-in vehicle grants.
But repositioning our economy for this new green age isn’t just about big business. It’s also about taking care of our local environment with new technology, through projects like the National Trust’s “LiDAR” aerial mapping scheme.
Funded by Government, this has enabled the Trust to study the famous Wallington Estate in Northumberland, uncovering a wealth of lost trees and archaeological features. With the mapping complete, work can now start to plant 75,000 native trees to restore the beauty of the estate, reverse declines in wildlife, and capture more carbon. The survey has also revealed 120 new archaeological features dating back to 2000BC – a huge success in preserving Northumberland’s rich culture and heritage.
It shows that Northumberland remains at the forefront of the fight to protect and preserve our outstanding natural beauty. As we approach COP26, we should take inspiration from great Northumbrians past and present – the warning signs are clear, and we must act.
And as this part of the world proves, decarbonisation doesn’t hold a country back – it is essential for our future prosperity.