The new government will need more than willpower and confidence to solve the environment crisis

Boris Johnson smallWe will have a new prime minister on Wednesday, almost certainly Boris Johnson, and new ministers by the end of the week. What should the environmental sector hope for?

1. Number 10
The environment has had a low profile in the Tory leadership context and Boris Johnson will have a lot on his plate. But given the severity of the climate and wider environmental crisis, and growing public concern, he would be wise to take the issue seriously.

In her first year as PM, Theresa May’s Downing Street was pretty hostile. The prime minister’s chief of staff, Nick Timothy, stopped any meaningful engagement on climate change and Number 10 seemed blissfully unaware of Brexit’s importance for the environment. This changed after the June 2017 general election. A new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, quickly held a meeting with green NGOs, and soon after John Randall, now Lord Randall, was appointed as the PM’s environmental adviser.

In the few moments of her premiership not swallowed by Brexit, Theresa May was something of an environmental champion. She regularly highlighted the importance of climate action in her speeches; wrote the forewords to the clean growth strategy and the 25 year environment plan; gave the first major environmental speech by a prime minister since the early days of Tony Blair’s tenure; and, in her last days in office, pushed through the commitment to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The new PM will inherit two important commitments: net zero and the promise of an ambitious Environment Act. If they are to mean anything, Mr Johnson must appoint a green champion at the heart of his operation and demonstrate that they are an important part of his vision. Environmental policy goes one way when the rhetoric from Number 10 is about getting rid of “the green crap”; it gains momentum when clearly championed by the prime minister.

2. Other departments
The story of the past two years has been one of environmental progress from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS); flickering support from Number 10; resistance from the Treasury to anything that costs money or could be interpreted as hindering growth; and hopelessness from the Department for Transport (DfT), the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

On MHCLG, every time a new communities secretary or housing minister is appointed (there have been five since the last election) I write to say how important energy efficiency is to the UK’s climate commitments; every time, I get a reply informing me that energy is the responsibility of BEIS and suggesting that I write to them instead. Doh!

If the government is to get on track to net zero, more will be needed from every department, much more from DfT and MHCLG. The UK’s trade policy must also wake up to the huge economic opportunities that global decarbonisation will bring. Will there be enough good ministers in a Johnson cabinet to push the action we need? Some of the best Conservative politicians are unwilling or unlikely to serve; some of the most alarming are tipped for high office.

If Rory Stewart, Greg Clark and Claire Perry return to the back benches, Michael Gove will be the sole green survivor. I will get into trouble for calling him “green”, but his record speaks for itself. I hope he stays at Defra, perhaps with climate change added to its responsibilities. Better still, as chancellor he could oversee a spending review as if climate change and environmental breakdown really mattered. It is hard to see any other potential chancellor doing so.

But no one really knows how someone will behave in office. Few expected Michael Gove to champion the environmental cause, but he looked at the evidence and came down on the right side of the fence. Maybe others will too. Sajid Javid, for instance, had a reputation as a free market dogmatist when he became communities secretary, but he championed public spending to solve the housing crisis. And it is clear that the net zero announcement is causing all but the most boneheaded politicians to think about the environment in ways they have not previously done. There is hope.

3. One early test
A good deal of the government’s green credibility rests on the Environment Bill. Defra’s intentions are good, but the draft bill, published shortly before Christmas, was deficient in important respects, with the Treasury and other departments apparently fighting a rearguard action to drain it of ambition. To be truly effective, the remit of the Office for Environmental Protection must include climate and have strong enforcement powers, and there must be a cross government commitment to legally binding targets on nature’s recovery, air quality and resource efficiency, as well as a deposit return scheme for all drinks containers.

4. No Deal
A no deal Brexit carries serious risks for the environment (I could use stronger language). It must be avoided. It also contains serious risks for the longevity of the government. But Boris Johnson appears oddly convinced that all problems can be dissolved by sufficient willpower and national confidence. We shall see.

[Image courtesy of Foreign and Commonwealth Office, via Flickr]

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