This essay first appeared in the IPPR and WWF publication Putting People at the Heart of the Green Transition.

The UK target of net zero is one we must meet, but our path to meeting it is also important. It must be a path that is fair; engaging with people and the environment. It must offer an optimistic and positive route to delivering this major transition.

We can afford the transition to net zero – it will cost 1-2% of GDP by 20501 – and we can plan for it. If we don’t, the costs and impacts won’t fall equitably across society and industry, and the transition will be increasingly divisive. Government has to take a leadership role.

Some traditional industries will decline or disappear, and new lowcarbon industries will grow – but these will need different skills:

  • The move away from fossil fuels will impact jobs, but meeting net zero will require at least a doubling in the size of our electricity system. More jobs will be created in new industries such as offshore wind and hydrogen: the Offshore Wind Sector Deal aims to increase jobs in the offshore wind industry from 7,200 today to 27,000 by 2030.
  • The move to electric vehicles with fewer parts will make car assembly less labour-intensive, and the significant UK capacity for engine manufacture will decline.
  • Retrofitting 29 million existing homes, as well as hospitals, offices, factories, shops and public buildings with energy efficiency measures and low-carbon heat will generate new types of highly-skilled jobs in the construction industry.

None of this will happen without leadership and coordination: government has a key role in ensuring that people have access to the right training and that regional policy addresses the issues of where jobs are needed and where new industries should be located.1

Decarbonisation of some parts of our lives will make them cheaper, while others will become more expensive:

  • Onshore wind is already the cheapest way to generate electricity, and offshore wind is likely to be delivering reductions in the electricity price by the 2030s.
  • Electric vehicles are cheaper to run and maintain and should become cheaper to buy than conventional vehicles in the 2020s.
  • Insulation and low-carbon heat, especially retrofitting existing homes and using hydrogen, will be more expensive than the status quo, accounting for almost half of the cost of meeting the net zero goal.

So, with no intervention, motorists in new homes in the South East could see their living costs fall, while the elderly and those in fuel poverty would see rises. The government will need to rebalance tax and introduce other measures to ensure the costs of the transition fall fairly.

The UK’s commitment to transition by 2050 means that carbonintensive industries such as steel-making and ceramics could face undercutting on price from those transitioning later, potentially further offshoring our emissions. The government needs to ensure that we have the right support in place to retain jobs and industrial capability in competitive companies investing in zero-carbon operations.

But while technology, jobs and living costs are all important elements of a just transition, maintaining and improving quality of life in a world where the climate is already changing is vital. Working with nature to support adaptation and mitigation will make the UK a happier and healthier place to live despite the changing climate.

To give just one example, in our cities and urban areas where more than 90% of us now live, green space has been declining – from 63% in 2001 to 55% in 2018. Yet green space provides resilience to surface water flooding, especially when integrated with green sustainable urban drainage systems; reduces the urban heat island effect, helping make increasingly hot summers bearable for city dwellers; encourages walking, reducing emissions from vehicles; absorbs CO2; and provides places for people to exercise and enjoy themselves. More investment in urban green space would accelerate behaviour change, reduce costs to the NHS, and be universally popular.

My ‘must-haves’ for a Green New Deal would include:

  • Investment in education, training and retraining for people at all stages of their careers
  • Regional support for zero-carbon industrial clusters
  • Tax and incentive systems for people and companies to ensure the costs of transition are distributed equitably
  • Investment in nature-based solutions both to reduce CO2 emissions and to help us adapt to – and in some cases even take advantage of – the changes to the climate that are still to come
  • Increased investment in research and innovation – because while we can deliver net zero with what we know today, we always need better solutions.

The transition to net zero presents risks and costs but also huge potential opportunities and benefits.

Baroness Brown of Cambridge DBE FREng FRS is a crossbench member of the House of Lords. Baroness Brown is Chair of the Adaptation Sub-Committee in the Committee on Climate Change is the Chair of the Carbon Trust, a global organisation driving towards a low-carbon economy.

This essay first appeared in the IPPR and WWF publication Putting People at the Heart of the Green Transition.


  1. The Committee on Climate Change, May 2019