Did this budget really ‘get it done’ on the environment?
Well, not quite. But perhaps given Coronavirus, it could be considered a welcome start to the ‘year of climate action’. What did we get?
The good stuff
There’s nothing too surprising here, mostly follow-up on Conservative manifesto commitments, but good announcements nonetheless.
The new ‘Climate for Nature’ fund promises to invest £640 million in tree planting and peatland restoration in England. We know that planting the right kind of trees in the right kind of places is vital to tackling climate change, so this is definitely good news. The eagle-eyed tree-wonks of Twitter were quick to question just how far the tree-planting commitment extends – so more questions are needed on that – we need to see 42,000 hectares of new woodland planted a year up to 2030 to be on track for net zero. Two other pots of money were announced for nature too: the Nature Network Recovery Fund and the Natural Environment Impact Fund. Again, it sounds promising but we’ll have to wait for more details.
Second, on clean transport, we were pleased to see the plug-in vehicles grant extended to support the roll-out of electric vehicles, alongside £100 million each year for the next five years for a UK-wide electric vehicle fast-charging network. The budget also announced an end to the red-diesel tax break with notable exemptions for the farming and rail sectors. But this spending, alongside the ongoing a consultation to bring forward to the phase-out date for polluting cars to 2035 or earlier, sends a strong signal that the future of private transport is electric.
Finally, the manifesto commitment to spend £800 million on carbon capture and storage (CCS) is kept in this budget with funding for at least two CCS clusters by 2030 along with a consumer levy funded gas plant with CCS.
What isn’t so good
It is never going to be an easy decision to unfreeze the fuel duty escalator but we know it has to be done as part of a wider clean transport agenda. The freeze on fuel duty since 2011 has produced an extra 4.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions and 12,000 tonnes of NOx emissions from additional traffic on the roads. It has also cost the Treasury £46 billion in lost revenue. But this news, sitting right alongside a whopping £27 billion investment in expanding the road networks by 4,000 miles, shows that the Heathrow ruling (made on climate grounds) hasn’t quite filtered through to the Treasury or DfT just yet.
Onto the really big question of decarbonising our homes and workplaces, the government has completely ducked out of making any major decisions on this, despite promising it would spend over £9 billion for energy efficiency in its recent manifesto. Instead, there was almost total silence on the question of insulating buildings and making them fit for the 21st century. This is a massive oversight. Although, buried deep in the so-called ‘red-book’ is a new £100 million fund for heat pumps and other low carbon heating solutions from April 2022, perhaps a little slow, but this is good news nonetheless.
Political leadership is needed to close the funding gap
The chancellor has today shown that, where there is political leadership, the government can and will respond with investment and regulation to major crises that face our country and the world. And there is no doubt the measures introduced in response to Coronavirus are necessary. But it also exposes the lack of leadership that still exists on climate and nature. As Adam Vaughan of the New Scientist noted today, £27 billion is being spent on new roads, whilst green transport funding totalled just £1 billion.
With extreme weather events continuing, nature in crisis and the clock ticking down to the UN climate conference in November, it is now vital that the government uses all its upcoming opportunities: the National Infrastructure Strategy, the Comprehensive Spending Review, the treasury net zero review and an autumn budget, to increase funding for climate and nature to the level needed. Our calculations estimate that this should equal five per cent of government spending, or around £42 billion every year for the next three years. We will be updating our net zero policy tracker with all the government’s new commitments over the coming days to show how far it still has to go this year to close the gap.