In recent weeks, the prime minister has talked a good deal about the environment, including in two UN speeches and a large chunk of his party conference speech. We are told he is itching to give a big speech on net zero and the green recovery.
Some will dismiss this (surely unprecedented?) prime ministerial interest in the green agenda as mere rhetoric, but that would be a mistake. Rhetoric can spur action. Having a prime minister who cares about nature and who wants to see the UK lead the world in climate action is an unequivocally good thing.
But what is the government actually doing? Beyond the warm words, what is going on?
There is a serious risk of a no deal Brexit which will harm the environment as well as the economy.
Deal or no deal, on 1 January none of the four nations of the UK will have effective environmental governance. The UK government has yet to consult on how it will implement EU environmental principles. On chemicals regulation, the UK is replacing a gold star system with one that will be both costlier and less safe. And we will see congestion, air pollution and new lorry parks in port counties.
If there is no deal, high tariffs will set back the transition to more sustainable farming practices. There will be less money for the environment and probably less political attention given to it. There will be a rush to strike bargain basement trade deals. And an acrimonious no deal will damage UK-EU co-operation in the run-up to the COP26 UN climate conference, which the UK is hosting next year.
One of the issues holding back a deal is the EU’s insistence that the UK agrees not to lower environmental standards. The government has repeatedly refused to do so in law and the EU has drawn the obvious conclusion.
It is not too late for the government to deliver the green Brexit it promised. But we should not delude ourselves that it is likely.
The government deserves great credit for championing nature internationally. But the drift of domestic policy is worrying.
The flagship Environment Bill, essential to implementing the 25 year environment plan and much else, has been missing from parliament for over 200 days. It is hard to believe that ministers see it as a priority. High hopes for the greening of farming policy (in England, at least) are giving way to fears that the new Environmental Land Management scheme will simply become a replacement for the old basic payments scheme, with public money going mainly to support farm incomes.
Then there is planning. The government wants the biggest overhaul of the planning system in England since 1947. It wants to speed up development. It is reasonable for the environment secretary to challenge the sector to come up with better ways of protecting nature through the planning system, but it is also reasonable for the sector to view the government’s proposals with deep suspicion.
Net zero and green renewal
The government promises a green recovery from Covid-19 and remains committed to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It has committed £2 billion for active travel and £3 billion to improve energy efficiency in homes and public buildings. Given the impact of the pandemic, the fact that the environment remains high up the political agenda is noteworthy.
But this cannot disguise the fact that the country is way off track to achieving net zero and the government has no clear plan for getting back on track. As the host of the COP26 UN climate talks next November, it badly needs one.
We need more action. The next few months will tell us whether we will get a green recovery and whether we will head into COP26 with the policies and spending in place to achieve net zero.
Here are some of the things we are still waiting for.
- The spending review
Now expected to be for one year only, this must include serious investment in net zero and nature’s recovery. Germany, France, the EU and others are investing significant sums in a green recovery. The economic case is clear. But green renewal does not just mean investing in the right things. It also, as Anneliese Dodds recently pointed out, means reviewing carbon intensive expenditure, such as the £27 billion roads programme.
- The National Infrastructure Strategy
What we build now can make it easier to achieve net zero, or harder. But, where is the strategy?
- The energy white paper
- A clean heat policy
- The decarbonising transport strategy
Transport emissions remain stubbornly high. An early sign of the government’s intent on transport will be the phase out date for sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles and plug-in hybrids. Will it be 2030, making it much easier to achieve net zero and save the UK car industry, or later?
- A decision on banning UK export finance for fossil fuels
- The Aviation Strategy
- The Planning Bill that will follow the white paper: what environmental price will be paid for a more developer-friendly system?
- The Environment Bill, of course
- The England peat strategy
- The waste prevention plan (originally due for review in 2019)
- The Treasury’s Net zero review
- A decision on replacing the EU ETS (emissions trading system)
The replacement scheme must cover all existing participants and allow for other sectors to be added as soon as possible. It must also set a carbon price that prompts serious investment in decarbonisation.
- A net zero compliant NDC (nationally determined contribution)
This is required to support the Paris climate change agreement and will set the tone for COP26. And, once we have it, we need a credible cross government plan to deliver it.
The petty done, the undone vast…
There really is a good deal to do, but if the government gets on with it, by Christmas we should have a much better idea of what sort of recovery and what sort of Brexit we are heading for, and whether the UK will host COP26 as a true climate leader, in action as well as words.