More investment in broadband instead of building roads should be part of a “green” package of measures to rebuild the economy, climate advisers have urged.
Ministers should also take immediate steps to boost home insulation programmes, help people retrain in green jobs such as installing clean heat pumps, create more space for walking and cycling, and increase tree planting.
The government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change has written to the Prime Minister to tell him that action to cut greenhouse gas emissions is “integral” to the UK’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
The committee’s chairman Lord Deben said: “The Covid-19 crisis has shown the importance of planning well for the risks the country faces.
“Recovery means investing in new jobs, cleaner air and improved health. The actions needed to tackle climate change are central to rebuilding our economy.
“The government must prioritise actions that reduce climate risks and avoid measures that lock-in higher emissions.”
The committee wants to see investments in projects that tackle climate change, many of which could be rapidly rolled out, spread across the UK and create lots of jobs.
New homes can be built to better standards while projects to retrofit existing houses to make them energy and water efficient and protect them from overheating and flooding should be a priority, the letter says.
There is also an urgent need to train people to roll out clean heating for buildings such as heat pumps, while skilled workers in the oil and gas industry may need to be retrained and redeployed to build low-carbon technology.
The government should also lead a shift towards activities that have come into play as a result of the lockdown and can curb emissions, such as more walking and cycling, working from home and remote medical consultations.
Higher investment in 5G and fibre broadband should be prioritised over building and upgrading roads, to help people carry on home working after the lockdown lifts and reduce pollution from traffic, the committee urged.
And new attitudes towards walking and cycling can help form a new transport policy with dedicated safe spaces for pedestrians and cyclists, more bike parking and support for shared bikes.
Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of green space but it is in decline, so the committee also recommends restoring parks and planting trees, including in cities, as well as restoring peatland to deliver benefits for people and planet.
And the government should prioritise accelerating its existing plans for flood defences, electric vehicle charging networks, production of hydrogen as a clean alternative to fossil fuels, onshore wind, offshore wind and solar power.
All these measures would provide a major stimulus to an economic recovery, deliver benefits such as improving air quality, and reduce society’s exposure to external shocks such as swings in oil prices, as well as tackling climate change.
Support for polluting industries such as airlines should be conditional on them taking real action on climate change and low oil prices could provide an opportunity to increase tax on fossil fuels without hurting consumers.
The committee’s letter, which has also been sent to first ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, said the costs of making the UK more resilient should not fall on those who are least able to pay.
And the UK, which is hosting key UN “Cop26” talks on tackling global warming in Glasgow next year, must show international leadership by ramping up climate action at home, the committee urged.
A government spokeswoman said: “We recognise that working to eliminate our contribution to climate change will also be a key part of ensuring a green and resilient economic recovery from Covid-19.
“That is why we’re continuing to champion innovative measures in energy storage, smart electricity grids, zero-emission vehicles and eco-friendly buildings, on top of the unprecedented package of support for businesses to help them deal with the impacts of Covid-19.”
Emily Beament is the PA environment correspondent.