Positive policy, hopeless departments and Brexit: reflections on 2018
In normal times, an environmentalist’s reflections on the last year would be pretty positive. I do not want to get carried away. The scale of the environmental challenges we face is vast and the government, as governments do, spends much of its time making things worse. But 2018 was a much better year in the UK than, say, 2015, when David Cameron aimed to “get rid of the green crap”, or 2016-17, when Theresa May’s climate change sceptic adviser, Nick Timothy (at that time sporting a Rasputin beard) was at the height of his influence.
As environment secretary, Michael Gove has injected new energy and ambition into Defra. For all its flaws, and there are always flaws, the agriculture bill is framed around a concept that environmentalists have advocated for 20 years: public money for public goods. We now have an ambitious resources and waste strategy. And, in January, at the London Wetlands Centre, the PM launched the 25 year environment plan. She even looked relaxed: there’s the healing power of nature for you.
BEIS too has had a (largely) good year, launching an industrial strategy that promotes low carbon growth, asking the Committee on Climate Change to look into a net zero emissions target, and bidding, at the end of the year, to host the UN climate talks in 2020.
Of course, even the greenest ministers and departments often fall short of our expectations, and the departments of transport and housing, communities and local government are hopeless, though that is hardly news. One of my hobbies is writing to new ministers in these other departments saying “I know BEIS leads on climate change, but you also have an important role to play”. I always get much the same reply: “BEIS leads on climate change, talk to them.” As for the “sub-human denizens of the Treasury” nourished “on dry husks” (Keynes – I would not be so rude) they have been throwing grit in the wheels of environmental progress.
But for all that, on balance, in normal times, this would count as a good year for UK environmental policy (as I write, we are awaiting the publication of the environment bill). There have also been some good initiatives by the devolved governments (though here too, with blemishes – roads policy in Wales, for instance, or farming policy in Scotland). Finally, there is the hope of genuine competition between the main parties over which is the greener, with Jeremy Corbyn increasingly keen to talk about the need for climate action.
But these are not normal times. Incredibly for a review of 2018, I have not yet mentioned Brexit, which sucks most of the life out of our politics and is (in case you had not noticed) in a terrible mess. Reviewing the grim year of 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote: “Thus ends this year of publick wonder and mischief to this nation, and generally wished by all people to have an end.” He went on to reflect on the deficiencies of parliament, the City and “a sad, vicious, negligent Court, and all sober men there fearful of the ruin of the whole kingdom this next year; from which, good God deliver us”. I know how he felt.
Greener UK, an extraordinarily cohesive coalition of 14 national environmental organisations, working closely with a much wider range of groups and networks, has avoided getting drawn into the politics of Brexit. Our focus is on its impact on the environment, and with barely three months to go before the UK is due to leave the EU, an awful lot remains unresolved. See the latest risk tracker, where no area of policy is classified as low risk.
Rather than calling for particular Brexit outcomes, Greener UK has set benchmarks against which particular outcomes or proposals can be judged. But, as parliament gears up for the ‘meaningful vote’ on the Withdrawal Agreement, it is crystal clear that no deal will be a very poor deal for the environment and must be avoided. The insouciance with which various politicians speak about crashing out of the EU without a deal is breathtaking. Some seem stuck in a fantasy world where 1940-style isolation looks like a desirable policy aspiration. It is not. There are no clean breaks in our complex and interdependent world, and we will have to get used to the fact that extricating ourselves from the EU and negotiating new trade arrangement will be difficult and often dull. Anyone who doubts this should read the fascinating lecture given earlier this month by Sir Ivan Rogers.
But some good can emerge from the Brexit process if we avoid the catastrophe of crashing out without a deal. The focus of the next few months will be on securing ambitious environmental policies across the UK, effective systems of enforcement, and appropriate alignment with the EU in areas such as decarbonisation and chemicals. We must also seize the chance to reshape our farming system so that it works both for farmers and for nature. There is some hope… really, there is.