The shovels are ready but are we digging ourselves deeper into trouble?
In his memoirs, Tony Blair is scathing about environmental NGOs: “Because their entire raison d’etre is to get policy changed, they can hardly say yes, we’ve done it, putting themselves out of business…. Balance is not in their vocabulary. It’s all ‘outrage’, ‘betrayal’, ‘crisis’.” Ed Balls expressed similar concerns to the Institute for Government in 2016. Green NGOs, he said, “were very sceptical about government. They found it very hard to support and push.” Rather than opening up space for the government to move into, they killed off good plans because they were not perfect.
I have had these strictures in mind in the past few days because there is much the government says that is worth celebrating and encouraging. It has promised “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth” and insists that Covid-19 will not reverse these ambitions. The prime minister says “we owe it to future generations to build back better”. Alok Sharma has convened a roundtable on the green recovery and declared that “the world must work together… to support a green and resilient recovery, which leaves no one behind”.
We’re in danger of losing the prize
I believe ministers are sincere in their desire to reach net zero and restore the natural world, and I want to cheer these ambitions. But I also fear they are in danger of losing the prize by compartmentalising environmental policy as something that stands aside from all the other things – the really serious things – governments have to do.
The business and environment departments have been calling for ideas to fuel a green recovery and been deluged with good suggestions. The Department for Transport, for so long a total disaster, is consulting on decarbonising transport and bringing forward the deadline for phasing out the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles. In time, even the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government may begin to understand that climate action should be a priority.
But all the good plans announced or hoped for risk being fatally undermined by a bunch of policies that are positively anti-environment. For instance, while £2 billion over five years “to create a new era for cycling and walking” is obviously welcome, the government is estimated to have spent over £9 billion on high carbon transport infrastructure since 2017. It has plans to spend £27.4 billion on 4,000 miles of new roads in the next five years, and over £8 billion of high carbon transport infrastructure is planned for this year alone.
The damage can’t be offset by a few green announcements
These road schemes are the British equivalent of Scott Morrison waving a lump of coal in the Australian parliament to taunt environmentalists. They bake-in high carbon emissions for years to come and will make it harder to achieve net zero, harder to clean our air, harder to reverse the decline of the natural world. This damage cannot be offset by a few green announcements. If the government is serious about net zero, it needs a net zero test for all new infrastructure.
That includes house building. Remarkably, the state is still subsidising the building of new homes that will have to be expensively retrofitted in a few years’ time. Since 2017, it has invested an estimated £9 billion to support house building, with an addition £1.6 billion expected this year. The scrapping of the Zero Carbon Homes Standard (“green crap”) was an awful mistake, but now we read in the FT that the prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, wants to renege on the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment to invest £9.2 billion in home energy efficiency. He thinks energy efficiency is “boring”. Instead, he wants to invest the money in building energy inefficient new homes.
I really do not know where to start with that one, perhaps with the excellent letter from the chairs of two House of Commons select committees to the chancellor, which points out that “investing in shovel ready projects in areas such as home energy efficiency will create jobs, grow supply chains and deliver energy and cost savings in the longer term”.
There’s no pressure from the opposition
Today’s speech by the prime minister nods to the environment (“we will… build back better, build back greener…”) and I do not dismiss the importance of this sort of framing. In the wake of the last economic crash, the environment was hardly a consideration. At least the PM sometimes says the right things, and does so, I am afraid, without being put under any sort of pressure by the Leader of the opposition, who is silent on the environment.
But, for all that, the PM is not rising to the huge challenge of climate and ecological breakdown, which should animate all aspects of government policy. When it comes to the natural environment, where on earth is the Environment Bill, once heralded by the PM as “the huge star of our legislative programme… a lodestar by which will we guide our country to a cleaner and greener future”? The bill needs to be reintroduced to parliament without delay.
When it comes to climate, building new roads; shunning the retrofitting of the nation’s draughty or stuffy homes; a nature and climate blind trade policy; loan guarantees for fossil fuel projects; weakening planning protections; bailing out carbon intensive industries without condition – all these things give an impression of a government that is not serious about achieving the huge green ambitions it has set itself.
The fossil fuel economy is dying. Investing in a net zero economy will pay dividends in terms of jobs, competitiveness and people’s quality of life. Helpfully, Green Alliance has set out a Blueprint for a resilient economy, a five point plan backed by serious analysis. The chancellor is due to set out a more detailed plan for the recovery shortly. I hope he takes note.