After over two years of uncertainty and growing political paralysis, we have a government with a clear mandate “to get Brexit done so that we can get on with… the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”. So what can environmentalists hope to see?
The Conservative manifesto was less ambitious and detailed on the environment than those of the other main parties, but it contains some good stuff (see pp 31, 42-3, 55) which only a couple of years ago would have been welcomed enthusiastically. Its promises must now be delivered.
1. Post-Brexit legislation
We need the early introduction of an ambitious Environment Bill, described in October’s Queen’s Speech as “the huge star of our legislative programme”. It must deliver a strong, independent environmental watchdog; legally binding targets for nature, water, air quality, and waste and resources; and the incorporation of the EU environmental principles into law, including a strong precautionary principle. The Agriculture Bill must fulfil the manifesto promise to create a farm support system “based on ‘public money for public goods’”, and the Fisheries Bill must keep the promise of “a legal commitment to fish sustainably”, though with rather more detail on what is meant by that.
2. Net zero
The manifesto acknowledges, almost in passing, that we have a “climate emergency” (p 23). An emergency calls for emergency measures (“our house is on fire”). The manifesto promises to deliver net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and it contains some welcome policy commitments, such as a first budget prioritising the environment (p 55). However, the commitments fall far short of what is needed to achieve the government’s own target of net zero.
If the UK is to have credibility as a world leader on climate policy in the run up to next year’s UN climate talks in Glasgow, the new government will have to do much more, much faster. It must raise its ambitions on retrofitting (what’s the plan? where’s the funding?) and on transport (phase out sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030; stop building new roads). It needs a plan to promote renewable energy beyond offshore wind; for land decarbonisation beyond tree planting (welcome though that is); and for a green industrial strategy.
Green Alliance’s Acting on net zero now helpfully sets out what to do across these five policy areas. It is all eminently achievable, but will take focus and political bravery. It needs to be a very high priority for the government.
As Aneurin Bevan almost said, “the language of priorities is the religion of Conservatism”. Nothing in the Tory election campaign suggested that action on the environment was a high priority. The party has, in many respects, a good record since the 2017 election, but it was loath to shout about it during the campaign. It was, therefore, encouraging that in his victory speech, Boris Johnson pledged “to make this country the cleanest, greenest on earth, with the most far-reaching environment programme”.
Such rhetoric is welcome, but the next weeks and months (the Queen’s Speech, the budget, the National Infrastructure Strategy) will be the real test.
Perhaps, above all, the PM needs to appoint a ‘big hitter’ to steer action on net zero, someone capable (when necessary) of standing up to the Treasury and forcing action on laggard departments (yes, DfT and MHCLG, I am looking at you).
Michael Gove gets this. In his last speech as environment secretary, to Green Alliance’s summer reception in July, he said: “The single greatest challenge that we face in the next 18 months is making sure that the climate and environment emergency… is addressed with the force, passion, and determination that it deserves.” Who better to put in charge of achieving net zero? And I hope the PM will find a role for Zac Goldsmith, who was an environmentalist long before he became a politician and had a big impact in his few months in Defra.
I almost forgot Brexit. It is going to be “done”, but how? The easy bit is the divorce deal. What of the future relationship? Thus far, this has largely been a discussion about economics and security, but the green movement’s aspiration should be for a future environmental partnership, with the UK and EU working together to tackle the existential threat of environmental breakdown.
Trade could become the frontline of environmental politics. The Conservative manifesto promises that (p 57) “in all our trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards”, but it does not recognise that trade deals are all about hard choices. The UK will not be able to secure brilliant deals with everyone without compromising on standards or accepting someone else’s rules.
We will have to choose, and if the government is serious about maintaining high standards, it will choose broadly to follow EU norms. It should introduce a commitment in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill not to fall below current standards (non-regression) and promise to guarantee that UK environmental standards remain at all times at least as high as the EU’s.
5. In victory: magnanimity
The whole Brexit saga has been extraordinarily divisive. Boris Johnson has talked about bringing the country together and I hope he understands the sorrow many people feel at the prospect of leaving the EU. Remainers have lost, but they do not deserve to be insulted. Nor do non-UK citizens or those who were born abroad. One of the low points of the campaign was the prime minister’s statement that EU migrants have been able to treat the UK “as if it’s part of their own country” for too long. This country and our environment benefit hugely from migrants. Along with zero carbon, let’s have zero tolerance of xenophobia.
I do not want to end on a negative note. Boris Johnson has secured a stunning electoral victory and he has done so on the basis of probably the greenest manifesto of any party elected to power in the UK. We have the strongest government for almost 20 years. It can get stuff done, not only Brexit.
People often ask, who is the real Boris Johnson? Many see him as a political opportunist who has no firm beliefs. But many who know him are positive that he cares deeply about the environment, particularly the natural environment, and is keen to leave a positive legacy. I sincerely hope they are right and that the environmental movement will be able to work constructively with the prime minister and his new government to tackle the climate and ecological crisis.