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Vaccinating a nation: can Biden manage America’s biggest health project?

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Across the US, vast “freezer farms” are popping up — warehouses containing row after row of ultra-cold storage equipment designed to house a vaccine against Covid-19 when one is approved.

These warehouses are the most visible sign of a new supply chain set up in just a few months as public officials and private companies prepare for the imminent arrival of one or more potentially world-changing drugs, at least one of which will have to be stored at temperatures colder than an Arctic winter.

The smooth functioning of this cold supply chain is vital if the US is to be able to offer vaccines to everyone who wants one, as the federal government has promised by next summer.

For president-elect Joe Biden, the vaccine plan is arguably the most important issue that awaits him. His reputation as president will probably be decided in large part by whether he can provide vaccines to enough people to help end the pandemic in a country which has recorded more than 12.2m cases and nearly 257,000 deaths.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris speak with the Covid-19 Advisory Council during a briefing on November 9 in Wilmington, Delaware
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris speak with the Covid-19 Advisory Council during a briefing on November 9 in Wilmington, Delaware © Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty
If it goes wrong, the vaccine rollout could resemble the debacle that characterised the US response to the early stages of the virus
If it goes wrong, the vaccine rollout could resemble the debacle that characterised the initial US response to the virus © Taimy Alvarez/AP

“This is the most difficult distribution challenge we have ever faced,” says Dusty Tenney, chief executive of Stirling Ultracold, which makes some of the ultra-cold freezers needed to store the Pfizer/BionNTech vaccine at temperatures of -70C. “It is like doing Amazon’s one- or two-day delivery, but using ultra-low temperature products that have never before made it on to the market.”

Distributing a coronavirus vaccine will be a daunting task for every government around the world, especially for developing nations where it is often far harder to guarantee that doses will remain at the kind of low temperatures required for the likely two first vaccines. Oxford university and AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which has received Operation Warp Speed funding, can be stored at normal fridge temperatures, however. 

In the US, the task will be made harder not just by the country’s rugged and often sparsely-populated terrain. Other challenges include a hostile political backdrop where outgoing President Donald Trump has spent the past three weeks contesting the election results, agreeing only on Monday night to start allowing contact between administration officials and Joe Biden’s transition team. 

If it goes wrong, the vaccine rollout could resemble the debacle that characterised the US response to the early stages of the virus, when tests malfunctioned and states bid against each other in the scramble to procure personal protective equipment for healthcare workers.

It could also sow the seeds of the next great American political divide. Already Democrats are accusing the Trump administration of failing to do enough to prioritise vaccinating minority groups, while rural voters who predominantly support Mr Trump are also worried they will miss out.

But if it goes smoothly, allies of Mr Trump hope it could help rescue his reputation for handling the pandemic. And it is even more likely to determine the fortunes of Mr Biden, whose first term will be dominated by the virus and its aftermath.

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University, says: “The Food and Drug Administration has largely got a handle on the approval process; the big worry now for Joe Biden is, how does he distribute a vaccine, how does he do so equitably, and how does he persuade people to get it?”

Mr Biden himself encapsulated his task last week, warning: “How do we get over 300m Americans vaccinated? What’s the game plan? It’s a huge, huge, huge undertaking.”

Donald Trump holds a press conference, flanked by Moncef Slaoui (R), chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, in September
Donald Trump holds a press conference, flanked by Moncef Slaoui (R), chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, in September © Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty
Demonstrators pray during a recent protest in Boston, Massachusetts, against government medical mandates
Demonstrators in Boston, Massachusetts, pray during a recent protest against government medical mandates © Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty

Fight for supplies

After months of work, the Trump administration published its distribution plans in October. Officials say they will be able to provide vaccines for all vulnerable people — likely to be frontline healthcare workers and older people with underlying illnesses — by the end of the year; all older people by the end of January; and everyone by early summer.

Under those plans, Operation Warp Speed — the vaccine development project the president set up in May — will use a piece of software created by technology company Palantir to track supply and demand in real time. The app, known as Tiberius, promises to give federal officials access to localised data on everything from the location of doses of the vaccines to how many people live in care homes in a given area.

The administration is paying the healthcare logistics company McKesson to oversee the delivery of many of the vaccines, although not the Pfizer one which the pharmaceutical company itself is responsible for — albeit with government money and assistance.

Meanwhile, hundreds of companies, from haulage firms to freezer providers to producers of shipping containers, are bidding for a patchwork of local and federal contracts to help deliver doses. Not only does the vaccine need to arrive in the right place and in the right condition, but so do millions of needles, glass storage vials and PPE for those administering it.

Francesco Incalza, president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for refrigerated transport company Thermo King, says of the global distribution task: “If the early vaccines are two doses each, we are talking about transporting 5bn of them in the first year — that would need 8,000 Boeing 777 flights.”

Trump officials say the plans, which have been jointly drawn up by the health department and the Pentagon, involve military-level precision. “The logistics are being worked to the minute, in an army-combat approach,” says Moncef Slaoui, head of Operation Warp Speed. “We have tabletop exercises — which are kind of rehearsals — every Friday, in which we identify areas that need more specific solutions. I feel very comfortable that it is incredibly well worked out.”

But Mr Slaoui’s task is to get the vaccine to state-designated distribution hubs: it is up to the states themselves to get them to individuals, through a network of hospitals, community centres and high-street pharmacies.

US vaccination in numbers

$25bn

Sum president-elect Joe Biden promises to spend on vaccine manufacturing and distribution

8,000

Estimated number of flights that will be needed to distribute 5bn doses globally in the first year

42%

Percentage of Americans planning to take a coronavirus vaccine, according to YouGov

This is what Biden advisers say worries them most: that a lack of direction from the federal government risks repeating the situation in spring, when states tried to buy the same items of PPE with little guidance from the federal government, leaving gaps in certain areas. Already there are signs that this is happening.

North Dakota is one of a handful of states that have been running pilot schemes for how vaccine distribution would work, even carrying out dummy runs using doses of flu vaccines.

The state, which has been hit harder than almost anywhere in the world by the virus, has bought four ultra-cold freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine, ignoring the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. North Dakota has also bought its own dry ice machine to equip shipping containers in which it will transport doses even to its most rural communities.

But as a vaccine approval has got closer, supplies have been getting harder to come by. “Local providers are having problems getting needles and vials because the federal government is buying them all up,” says Molly Howell, the state’s immunisation programme manager. “There is also definitely a shortage of gloves and N95 masks.”

Dry ice is another concern. Earlier this year there were national shortages of the product, which is a byproduct of gasoline manufacturing, as lockdowns brought cities to a halt and crushed demand for petrol. The US Compressed Gas Association insists there will be enough to get through the winter, but another round of lockdowns could yet put that in peril.

Healthcare workers fill out patient paperwork during a drive-thru flu shot clinic in Shreveport, Louisiana, early this month
Healthcare workers fill out patient paperwork during a drive-through flu shot clinic in Shreveport, Louisiana, early this month © Dylan Hollingsworth/Bloomberg
A protest to call for safe and free Covid-19 vaccines last month in Washington
A protest to call for safe and free Covid-19 vaccines last month in Washington © Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call/Getty

Fair distribution

Another concern of the incoming Biden team is that minority communities, many of which have been hit hardest by the disease, will not be prioritised. Though a government-commissioned report has recommended making sure black people in particular get the vaccine early, the Trump administration is leaving it up to states to decide exactly how they will allocate their doses.

In a year which has also seen mass uprisings against police violence towards black people, many fear any approach that would further entrench America’s political and cultural divisions.

Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, warned this month: “[The Trump administration is] basically going to have the private providers do it and that’s going to leave out all sorts of communities that were left out the first time when Covid ravaged them.” In response, Mr Trump threatened not to distribute the vaccine to Mr Cuomo’s state at all.

Helene Gayle, who co-authored a government-commissioned report on how to distribute a coronavirus vaccine fairly, is one of a number of experts whom Mr Biden’s transition team has consulted in recent weeks. She says: “The planning is just getting started, and there hasn’t been the national leadership this requires. States have been left to themselves.”

Mr Biden has promised to spend $25bn on vaccine manufacturing and distribution, hoping to plug the gaps they say have been left by the Trump plan. But properly identifying those gaps has been made harder by the fact that the president-elect’s advisers have been denied access to administration officials for weeks after the election.

The delay has already prompted warnings from senior officials, including Mr Slaoui, who said earlier this month: “It is a matter of life and death for thousands of people.”

Celine Gounder, a member of the Biden-Harris Covid-19 advisory council, has called for an overhaul of Trump’s ‘Warp Speed’ vaccine effort
Céline Gounder, a member of the Biden-Harris Covid-19 advisory council, has called for an overhaul of Trump’s ‘Warp Speed’ vaccine effort © Amr Alfiky/New York Times/Redux /eyevine
A ‘freezer farm’, a football field-sized facility for storing finished Covid-19 vaccines, under construction in Kalamazoo, Michigan
A ‘freezer farm’, a football field-sized facility for storing finished Covid-19 vaccines, under construction in Kalamazoo, Michigan © Jeremy Davidson/Pfizer/AP

Anti-vaxxer resistance

Even if all that works — if the vaccine is transported safely and in sufficient numbers from factories, to distribution hubs, to local clinics and pharmacies — whether people will agree to have the jab is another question.

An hour outside Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota, where Ms Howell has been toiling away at her state’s distribution plans, Alexis Wangler has been watching the race to get a drug approved with growing concern. Ms Wangler lives in Linton, a small town with about 1,000 residents. Like most of the state, it has been ravaged by coronavirus.

Ms Wangler’s husband believes he had the virus, having suffered fatigue and a loss of smell and taste. His grandmother definitely did, and ended up in hospital with the disease. Her co-worker’s husband is still in hospital — though he is now out of intensive care and no longer receiving supplemental oxygen. Nearly one in 10 North Dakotans have now tested positive for the disease since the start of the pandemic, and 14 per cent of those currently being tested are coming back positive.

However, none of this is enough to persuade Ms Wangler to line up for a shot. “Vaccine makers have said they are in a race to produce it, so that means corners will most likely be cut,” she says. “I’m going to take my chances with my god-given immune system, which has a way better chance of protecting me.”

Ms Wangler is not alone — only 42 per cent of Americans currently plan to take a coronavirus vaccine, according to YouGov, thanks to widespread safety concerns. Some of those are committed anti-vaxxers, many more are simply worried that this approval process has been rushed. That is far below the 70 per cent of people who experts think need to be vaccinated before enough of the population is resistant and to bring the spread of the virus to a standstill.

If Mr Biden wants to achieve herd immunity through a vaccine, he will have to persuade people like Ms Wangler. The problem is she, like most of her neighbours, did not vote for him, and does not trust him on healthcare issues — especially after he and his running mate Kamala Harris warned about vaccine safety concerns during the election campaign.

Despite being one of the states that has suffered most from the pandemic, with more than 72,000 cases, North Dakota’s vote for Mr Trump increased at the last election.

Nor is the state a one-off. An analysis by the broadcaster NPR last week found that Mr Trump increased his share of the vote in 68 out of the 100 counties with the highest Covid-19 death rates per capita — a trend seen across states that voted both Republican and Democrat.

These are the voters who feel they have been left behind by the political class in Washington, and experts warn their alienation with mainstream politics is only likely to grow if they feel they are being bypassed while the rest of the country plots an exit from the pandemic.

A free flu clinic vaccination event in Detroit, Michigan
A free flu clinic vaccination event in Detroit. If Joe Biden wants to achieve herd immunity on Covid-19 through a vaccine, he will have to persuade a growing anti-vaxxer movement © Matthew Hatcher/Getty
North Dakota National Guard soldiers administer Covid-19 tests in Bismarck. Long lines reappeared as the holiday season neared
North Dakota National Guard soldiers administer Covid-19 tests in Bismarck. Long lines reappeared as the Thanksgiving holiday season neared © Tom Stromme/The Bismarck Tribune/AP

A clear departure

Mr Biden’s allies promise he will be the country’s “healer-in-chief”, bringing the country together after a divisive four years under Mr Trump. But the phrase could also be used literally. If Mr Biden wants to be remembered for more than beating Mr Trump, he will have to manage one of the biggest, most complex and most politically-charged healthcare projects ever undertaken by the US government.

“The only comparative thing the healthcare system does right now is roll out a national flu vaccine every year,” says Eric Topol, a cardiologist and professor at Scripps Research Institute, a medical think-tank. “But that is not compulsory, it is not as difficult to handle and is nowhere near as important as a coronavirus vaccine will be.”

Those who have helped shaped Mr Biden’s distribution plans insist the president-elect will be up to the task.

“The fact is that you have a president-elect who has made controlling the pandemic one of his four priorities — that in itself is very different from what we have at the moment,” says Dr Gayle. “Everything is a clear departure from the previous approach.”



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Analysis

A pivotal moment for Scotland’s independence champion

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Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has credited her former mentor and predecessor Alex Salmond with making her career.

Sturgeon’s appearance on Wednesday morning before a parliamentary inquiry into her Scottish National party government’s handling of harassment complaints against Salmond will be a potentially pivotal moment for her, and her dream of leading Scotland to independence from the UK.

At an extraordinary appearance before the parliament committee on Friday lasting almost six hours, Salmond accused Sturgeon’s closest associates of maliciously colluding to drive him from public life and his former protégée of breaching the ministerial code by intentionally misleading parliament — potentially a resignation matter.

Sturgeon denies the allegations. But the televised session must have made difficult viewing for the formerly shy working-class girl from Ayrshire in south-west Scotland who has, in recent years, helped bring her nation closer to independence than at any time since the 1707 union with England that created Great Britain.

When Sturgeon succeeded Salmond as first minister in 2014 — in the aftermath of a referendum in which Scottish voters backed staying in the union by 55-45 per cent — she was fulsome in praise of her predecessor. “Without the guidance and support that Alex has given me over more than 20 years, it is unlikely that I would be standing here,” she told the Scottish parliament.

But Salmond was hardly the first figure in the SNP to spot Sturgeon’s talent. Aged just 16, Sturgeon in 1987 timidly rang the bell of then SNP general election candidate Kay Ullrich to offer her support. Four years later Sturgeon was a veteran student campaigner and, according to biographer David Torrance, Ullrich was presciently describing her to party comrades as the future “first female leader of the SNP”.

Sturgeon, who describes her nationalism as more “utilitarian” than “existentialist”, has said her early interest in politics was driven by anger at the social cost and deindustrialising impact of the policies of late UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the powerlessness of Scottish voters to resist them.

After studying law at Glasgow university, she became a community lawyer and a rising SNP star. In 1999, she was elected to the new devolved Scottish parliament and by 2004 she was a contender for the party leadership. But she accepted the junior place on a joint ticket after Salmond, who had already led the SNP from 1990 to 2000, entered the race.

Sturgeon, right, with Kay Ullrich in May 1999 © Mirrorpix/Alamy

Robert Johns, politics professor at Essex university and author of a book on the SNP’s rise, said Sturgeon was a big factor in the party’s fortunes as deputy leader from 2004 and as deputy first minister of Scotland after it won power in Edinburgh in 2007.

“She’s got better and better at being seen as a normal human being and becoming likeable, while at the same time not losing that reputation for competence,” Johns said.

After playing a central role in the 2014 referendum, which the pro-independence Yes campaign lost by a much smaller margin than expected, Sturgeon took over an SNP energised rather than dispirited by defeat.

Today, the first minister enjoys approval ratings unmatched by any other UK party leader despite 14 years in government and a patchy record on key policies.

Voting with her husband Peter Murrell in Glasgow in 2019 © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

An international education survey in 2019 found Scotland’s progress in narrowing the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils had actually slowed since Sturgeon made the issue her top priority four years earlier. And the SNP’s reputation for governing competence has been dented by serious problems with construction and equipment at flagship hospitals in Edinburgh and Glasgow. 

Sturgeon’s instinctive caution and mastery of detail — on display at near-daily televised briefings — appears to have served her well during the coronavirus pandemic. Most voters think she has handled the crisis better than UK prime minister Boris Johnson. While Covid-19 deaths in Scotland are high by international standards, they have been somewhat lower than in England.

But Sturgeon’s determination to keep a tight rein on the SNP and her reliance on a small inner circle of confidants, which includes her husband and SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, has fuelled discontent among some party colleagues. Formidable self-discipline was an ingredient in the once anarchic SNP’s rise, Johns said, but now the party felt “over-professionalised”. “It’s more top-down than it ever used to be,” he added.

‘The Alex Salmond Show’ on RT © Russia Today

Some in the SNP also believe that Sturgeon has been too cautious to take full advantage of a rise in support for independence since the UK in 2016 voted for Brexit despite 62 per cent of Scottish voters backing staying in the EU. Tensions in the party have also grown over her plans to make it easier for trans people to receive official recognition for the gender they identify as.

But it is the rift with Salmond that now threatens Sturgeon’s hopes for a renewed push for a second independence poll.

Relations between the two had already been tested by Salmond’s decision to host a chat show on Kremlin-backed Russian broadcaster RT when in 2018 two civil servants made formal complaints against the former first minister dating to his time of office.

In 2019, the Scottish government accepted that its investigation into the complaints had been “tainted by apparent bias”. At a criminal trial last year, Salmond was acquitted of all of the 13 sexual offences charges against him.

Salmond has accused Murrell and Sturgeon’s chief of staff Liz Lloyd of involvement in a “concerted” effort to damage his reputation “to the extent of having me imprisoned”. They deny the allegations.

Salmond and Sturgeon present the white paper for Scottish independence in 2013 © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Salmond has also accused Sturgeon of breaching the ministerial code by misleading parliament about when she learned of the complaints against him and by failing to report meetings between the two. And he says she has presided over a broad failure of “national leadership”.

They are charges that, if proven, could prove politically fatal, but Sturgeon — a formidable debater — says she is “relishing” the opportunity to set the record straight on Wednesday.

With crucial elections for the Scottish parliament just nine weeks away, her committee appearance could have a major impact on the UK’s constitutional debate, said Mark Diffley, a consultant on Scottish public opinion.

Polls suggest the SNP has been on course to go from minority to majority government, removing its need to rely on the pro-independence Scottish Greens for support on constitutional matters and providing a strong mandate to demand UK approval for a second referendum.

But securing a majority in the proportionally representative Scottish parliament is a difficult feat that would be made harder if Sturgeon was not seen to effectively rebut Salmond’s allegations, Diffley said. “She can, with a good performance, recover some of the damage,” he added. “It’s a huge deal for her — and she knows it.”



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Analysis

Can the lumbering US housing department become a force for change?

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One of Marcia Fudge’s first big battles as an elected official was over a shopping centre in Warrensville Heights, Ohio.

A developer wanted to build a hub for major retailers in the largely black Cleveland suburb, which has a population of 13,000. But Fudge would not have it. Warrensville Heights did not want “giant retail stores,” but office space and hotels, she said.

“We also control our own destiny and our own vision for the future,” Fudge, who was mayor of Warrensville Heights between 2000 and 2008, said at the time. “The days of plantation rule are over.”

Fudge won that battle and many others like it, and is widely credited for revitalising the area during her eight years as mayor.

Now she is being counted on by progressives to do the same in urban areas across the US as President Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The $50bn agency manages 1m units of public housing and oversees a vast array of federally-funded housing programs — from insuring mortgage loans to voucher programs for low-income families.

Housing reform is expected to be a key part of Biden’s efforts to support the black voters who propelled him into office, many of whom still deal with the consequences of decades of segregation and discrimination in America’s housing market.

Malcolm Glenn, a fellow at the New America think-tank, called Fudge’s appointment to HUD “a real opportunity” to make tangible progress on an issue where race and economics are tightly bound.

“If this administration and Secretary Fudge make racial equity, not just a core, but sort of the singular core guiding force around everything that they do, I think we’ll be in a much much much better place than we’ve ever been,” Glenn says. “I don’t think any HUD secretary has ever done that.”
 
Ro Khanna, a Democratic Representative from California, believes Fudge is uniquely qualified for the job. “She understands deeply housing inequity, she understands racial exclusion,” Khanna said. “[She will] really focus on equity in housing and anti-racist zoning laws and anti-racist policies.”
 
But to deliver on those hopes, Fudge will have to grapple with a demoralised agency facing dual crises. An unprecedented number of Americans face the threat of eviction because of the Covid crisis. And inside HUD, a mass exodus of career staffers under previous Secretary Ben Carson has decimated the ranks.

Congress slashed the department’s operating budget by 15 per cent last year.

Carson, a black surgeon who grew up in public housing, did not believe that it was the government’s responsibility to rectify the effects of systemic racism on the American housing market.

HUD also has a long record of underdelivering, and has sometimes been regarded as a backwater of government. Rates of home ownership among blacks have been largely stagnant since the 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed discriminatory policies that, among other ills, made it exceedingly difficult for blacks to take out mortgages.
 
Even Fudge acknowledged its shortcomings soon after her nomination. “I don’t know that anybody can even tell you what HUD has done,” she said. “So I really do think that HUD has not fulfilled its mission.”

Fudge, 68, has lived in the same tightly-knit neighbourhood for decades. Her personal phone number is listed in the local phone book, and she drives her 89-year-old mother to church every Sunday morning, stopping first at McDonald’s for a cup of coffee.
 
Her success in Warrensville Heights elevated her to Congress before the end of her second mayoral term. But her ascent was also tinged with tragedy: she was elected to fill the seat of her close friend and former boss, Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones when she died suddenly in August 2008.

“She’s tough as nails and I have to caution her sometimes about being too tough,” said Jim Clyburn, the House majority whip, adding that Fudge is the first person that fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus members confide in during a crisis.

During her time in Congress, she worked closely with the Department of Agriculture, an agency not often thought to be at the forefront of the fight for racial justice. But Fudge prodded it to expand food voucher programs, development schemes in rural areas, and for clearer labelling on food products.
 
She was actually angling for the top agriculture job when Biden tapped her for HUD instead. Last year, she told Politico in November: “You know, it’s always ‘we want to put the black person in [the Department of] Labor or HUD.’”

At HUD, Fudge has proposed boosting spending on housing, establishing programs to help Americans save up for mortgage down payments, and transforming a voucher program for low-income renters from a lottery to a guarantee for everyone that meets the requirements.
 
“Her style is not combative. She prefers to get along, but she’s not a pushover,” said Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson, who worked closely with Fudge during her mayoral tenure. “That means just don’t piss her off.”

In response to a question at her confirmation hearing from Republican Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton on what he called a “long history of intemperate comments”, Fudge replied: “Sometimes I am a little passionate about things.”

She is almost certain to meet further opposition. During the confirmation hearing, Pennsylvania’s Republican Senator Patrick Toomey complained that Obama-era fair housing policies were too costly and time consuming for home builders — and Fudge wants to go much farther than the Obama administration did.

People who know Fudge do not expect her to back down. “I think President Biden and his team want to have a slugger in that position,” said Tami Jackson Buckner, a partner Michael Best Strategies and sorority sister of Fudge’s. “She is someone who knows that without a home, it’s hard to fulfil your American dream.”



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Britons brace for price of UK going to net zero

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When the UK became the world’s first major economy to commit to a binding target of “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050, it had already made good progress with its electricity grid.

The rapid growth of renewable energy in the UK and the closure of many coal-fired power stations has cut the sector’s emissions by more than 70 per cent since 1990, and sent cleaner electricity to homes with minimum impact on consumers’ lives.

But as chancellor Rishi Sunak prepares to deliver a green-tinged Budget on Wednesday, and the UK gets ready to host the UN COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, experts are warning that decarbonising the electricity grid was in many ways the easy part of the journey to net zero.

“This year half the electrons supplied to British homes were green, but that doesn’t matter much to the consumer — the next stage of reforms and changes will be very different,” said Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, an independent body that advises the government on how to reach net zero.

The next leg of the journey will require consumers to adapt the way they live and, for those able to pay, also get their wallets out.

Hitting the net zero target will require sweeping changes in two key areas: transport, as the shift to electric cars accelerates, and buildings, where an overhaul is required to the way 30m homes are heated and insulated.

As the UK car fleet goes electric, the Treasury will need to find a way to recoup the £37bn a year it currently secures from carbon taxes, mostly fuel duty and vehicle excise duty © Dinendra Haria/SOPA/Getty

And the shift to low-carbon vehicles and swapping out of gas boilers for electric heat pumps presents the government with a series of delicate political and fiscal choices.

The projected cost is immense: the CCC estimates that annual capital spending largely by the private sector in greening the economy will peak at £50bn a year by 2030. That represents about one-eighth of current investment by the public and private sectors.

However, the CCC calculates that from the mid-2040s savings in operating spending — stemming in significant part from how it will be cheaper to run an electric car than a petrol-engine vehicle — will start to exceed the annual investment.

Stream graph showing that UK capital spending of about £50 billion a year is needed to hit the net-zero target, but it will be gradually offset by lower operating costs from deploying green solutions

The greening of transport and homes will create winners and losers, and the government has yet to clarify where the cost burden will fall. The Treasury has said it will later this year publish a net zero review, setting out in more detail “how the costs of achieving net zero emissions are distributed”.

For transport, which the CCC estimates will require £11.4bn of average annual investment over the next 30 years, the political pathway is easier than for buildings, according to Josh Buckland, who was an adviser to former business secretary Greg Clark and is now at consultancy firm Flint Global.

“Transport is to some degree a solvable problem,” he said. “Consumers can buy cars through financing deals, and so don’t have to pay up front costs.”

Still, there are political potholes ahead. As the UK car fleet goes electric, the Treasury will need to find a way to recoup the £37bn a year it currently secures from carbon taxes, mostly fuel duty and vehicle excise duty.

Stacked bar chart showing UK tax revenues from activities involving carbon emissions in 2019-2020 in billions of pounds sterling

The main contenders for replacing that revenue, said Buckland, are some combination of per-mile road-pricing and congestion charging — both ideas the Treasury has been toying with for years but shied away from for fear of a political backlash.

But far more problematic than transport, according to experts, will be the greening of the UK’s housing stock, which the CCC estimates will require £11.7bn of average annual investment over the next 30 years — and a massive shift in consumer attitudes. 

A 2020 poll by Energy Systems Catapult, a non-profit organisation, found that 49 per cent of people did not even consider their gas boilers as contributing to global warming — even though they account for almost one-fifth of carbon emissions.

The gap in public understanding is a huge challenge, according to Joss Garman of the European Climate Foundation, another non profit organisation. “Right now there is a big gulf about where the policy conversation is on decarbonising heat and where the public conversation is,” he said.

The scale of the necessary transition is also immense. The UK currently installs an estimated 30,000 electric heat pumps a year, while the government’s own goal is 600,000 a year by 2028, but to hit the net zero target installations will need to run at well over 1m a year into the 2030s and 2040s.

The CCC estimates that it will cost an average of £10,000 per household to achieve the target, with heat pumps priced at about £6,500 compared to £2,000 for a conventional gas boiler.

In its interim net zero review published in December, the Treasury was vague about how these costs will be borne, noting that they will be absorbed by households, property owners or the taxpayer, “depending on policy choices”.

Compared to transport, where an electric car is obviously attractive to the consumer, the political challenge of greening the nation’s homes are legion, said Buckland. 

“Firstly there is the upfront cost issue for homeowners, but also the consumer experience is different,” he added. “Gas boilers heat your home at the flick of a switch, whereas a heat pump takes 24 hours and heats the home to 17 to 19 degrees. It will require an attitudinal shift.”

Persuading consumers to spend money on heat pumps and loft insulation rather than kitchens and bathrooms will require a cocktail of grants and incentives, said Stark, which the government has so far failed to devise.

“There isn’t a technical barrier here, so much as the lack of a plan,” he added.

To drive change, the government could consider flipping the balance of energy taxes on to gas from electricity, which currently attracts far higher greenhouse gas levies.

Whatever the policy decisions, said Stark, the government will soon have to put some cards on the table when the Treasury publishes its net zero review before the UN COP26 summit. “To be credible it will have to spell out a clear plan . . . and that includes the fiscal choices ahead.”



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