This post was originally published by Business Green.
This has been a year of three prime ministers, the first since 1868 (I gift you that pub quiz question). We have also had three business secretaries, three environment secretaries and four chancellors. If there is a Brexit dividend, it is certainly not political stability.
The good news for the end of the year is that we now have a functioning government, not one lurching from crisis to crisis. But if the grown-ups are back in charge, they are not in total charge. A government elected with a majority of 80 still has to kowtow to the Brexit ultras and net zero sceptics on crucial issues.
How else to explain the environmentally and economically damaging Retained EU Law Bill or the decision to add to the world’s surfeit of coal by opening a new mine in Cumbria? The coalmine decision is particularly shocking as the minister responsible, Michael Gove, understands the gravity of the climate crisis. As he told Green Alliance in 2019, “The evidence is there in accumulating examples, with force that nobody can deny, and in a way that requires us to take action. If we don’t act now, the situation in every respect only get worse.” But that was then.
Time has been lost when we have too little of it
It is easy to be gloomy about events of the past year. Too much politics meant too little action on climate and nature. Time was lost when we have too little time. The climate and nature COPs were underpowered, though the government deserves credit for securing a deal at the biodiversity COP: it really could be the start of something significant.
The Conservative leadership contest revealed shallow support for net zero and alarming ignorance. And though the government remains committed to action on net zero and nature, progress has been slow and there is no sense that ministers get either the urgency of serious action or its economic benefits. Too often the assumption seems to be that action on the environment is something we can think about when the economy is in better shape, rather than the way to get it into better shape.
Of course, it is understandable that the environment has dropped down the political agenda since COP26. The wider context now is of war in Ukraine, rising food and energy prices and a deepening economic slump. The government has a lot on its plate. Politics over the next couple of years will be dominated by two things: the cost of living crisis and (though please don’t mention Brexit) the weakness of the economy.
But here are some reasons to be (relatively) cheerful.
Strong public support has held up
First, there is strong public support for action on the environment across all demographics and in all seats. This has political consequences. The year started with fears that a small but vocal group of Conservative climate sceptics would derail climate progress, just as a similar group had traumatised the party on the EU. That threat has receded, for now. Later in the year, Liz Truss’s government attacked environmentalists as part of a shadowy “anti-growth coalition”. Strong opposition from NGOs, and crucially Conservative MPs, saw off the “attack on nature”. Defra still needs more oomph, but fracking is off the agenda and onshore wind and solar, properly approved through the planning system, are back.
The arguments are strong
Second, those of us who want decisive action on climate and nature should feel confident that we have the strongest arguments. I do not say this lightly. I have a fascination with the climate sceptics and love to start the day devouring their house paper, the Daily Telegraph. In truth it publishes much sensible comment on climate and energy from experts and in its business columns. The attacks, which were so influential in the Conservative leadership contest, come largely from those who gave Liz Truss and her government their policy programme: small state, anti-regulation, anti-woke zealots.
They had their seven weeks in charge. The big picture remains that the world is decarbonising and UK businesses want to be part of that future, not the fossil-fuelled past. Moreover, the solutions to the cost of living crisis are largely green: better insulated buildings; locally produced, renewable energy; and a more resilient food system.
Labour is upping the ante
Third, Labour, ahead in the polls, is campaigning on the promise of “a fairer, greener future”. Keir Starmer’s party conference speech tied net zero to a wider programme for economic growth and social justice. The party is still very weak on nature and it lacks the detailed policy understanding in most areas that it will need if it gets elected. But there is at least hope that the main parties will now start competing on which can be the greenest, driving up ambition.
In November 2021, the Conservatives led Labour by three points on the environment; now, Labour leads by five. Do the Conservatives – proud champions of net zero who oversaw the Environment Act – really want to cede that ground?