Author Archives: Shaun Spiers

The new government will need more than willpower and confidence to solve the environment crisis

Boris Johnson smallWe will have a new prime minister on Wednesday, almost certainly Boris Johnson, and new ministers by the end of the week. What should the environmental sector hope for?

1. Number 10
The environment has had a low profile in the Tory leadership context and Boris Johnson will have a lot on his plate. But given the severity of the climate and wider environmental crisis, and growing public concern, he would be wise to take the issue seriously.

In her first year as PM, Theresa May’s Downing Street was pretty hostile. The prime minister’s chief of staff, Nick Timothy, stopped any meaningful engagement on climate change and Number 10 seemed blissfully unaware of Brexit’s importance for the environment. This changed after the June 2017 general election. A new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, quickly held a meeting with green NGOs, and soon after John Randall, now Lord Randall, was appointed as the PM’s environmental adviser.

In the few moments of her premiership not swallowed by Brexit, Theresa May was something of an environmental champion. She regularly highlighted the importance of climate action in her speeches; wrote the forewords to the clean growth strategy and the 25 year environment plan; gave the first major environmental speech by a prime minister since the early days of Tony Blair’s tenure; and, in her last days in office, pushed through the commitment to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The new PM will inherit two important commitments: net zero and the promise of an ambitious Environment Act. If they are to mean anything, Mr Johnson must appoint a green champion at the heart of his operation and demonstrate that they are an important part of his vision. Environmental policy goes one way when the rhetoric from Number 10 is about getting rid of “the green crap”; it gains momentum when clearly championed by the prime minister.

2. Other departments
The story of the past two years has been one of environmental progress from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS); flickering support from Number 10; resistance from the Treasury to anything that costs money or could be interpreted as hindering growth; and hopelessness from the Department for Transport (DfT), the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG).

On MHCLG, every time a new communities secretary or housing minister is appointed (there have been five since the last election) I write to say how important energy efficiency is to the UK’s climate commitments; every time, I get a reply informing me that energy is the responsibility of BEIS and suggesting that I write to them instead. Doh!

If the government is to get on track to net zero, more will be needed from every department, much more from DfT and MHCLG. The UK’s trade policy must also wake up to the huge economic opportunities that global decarbonisation will bring. Will there be enough good ministers in a Johnson cabinet to push the action we need? Some of the best Conservative politicians are unwilling or unlikely to serve; some of the most alarming are tipped for high office.

If Rory Stewart, Greg Clark and Claire Perry return to the back benches, Michael Gove will be the sole green survivor. I will get into trouble for calling him “green”, but his record speaks for itself. I hope he stays at Defra, perhaps with climate change added to its responsibilities. Better still, as chancellor he could oversee a spending review as if climate change and environmental breakdown really mattered. It is hard to see any other potential chancellor doing so.

But no one really knows how someone will behave in office. Few expected Michael Gove to champion the environmental cause, but he looked at the evidence and came down on the right side of the fence. Maybe others will too. Sajid Javid, for instance, had a reputation as a free market dogmatist when he became communities secretary, but he championed public spending to solve the housing crisis. And it is clear that the net zero announcement is causing all but the most boneheaded politicians to think about the environment in ways they have not previously done. There is hope.

3. One early test
A good deal of the government’s green credibility rests on the Environment Bill. Defra’s intentions are good, but the draft bill, published shortly before Christmas, was deficient in important respects, with the Treasury and other departments apparently fighting a rearguard action to drain it of ambition. To be truly effective, the remit of the Office for Environmental Protection must include climate and have strong enforcement powers, and there must be a cross government commitment to legally binding targets on nature’s recovery, air quality and resource efficiency, as well as a deposit return scheme for all drinks containers.

4. No Deal
A no deal Brexit carries serious risks for the environment (I could use stronger language). It must be avoided. It also contains serious risks for the longevity of the government. But Boris Johnson appears oddly convinced that all problems can be dissolved by sufficient willpower and national confidence. We shall see.

[Image courtesy of Foreign and Commonwealth Office, via Flickr]

When it’s no longer business as usual, how should we work with business?

shaun blog small“We are facing an unprecedented global emergency… we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.”

“Our house is on fire…. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

“Winning slowly is the same as losing.”

“To pursue never-ending economic growth – or even to keep things ticking along as they are – is to gamble with the fate of humanity. We need nothing short of a transformation of the way we live our lives.”

Statements like these, from Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg, Bill McKibben and Caroline Lucas, might once have been dismissed as scaremongering. Increasingly, as the evidence of climate and ecological breakdown piles up, they are being heard as the sober truth. Read more

Green Britain or no deal: you can’t have both

traffic smallWhen did Brexit become a ‘thing’, an end in itself? During the 2016 referendum campaign, Brexiteers promised a bright future for the UK outside the EU. Now, that promise has largely dwindled to delivering Brexit and fulfilling the “will of the people”, regardless of any consequences. It is as if Brexit has become a medicine we must take, even if it half kills the patient. Read more

Four decades of getting an ‘ecological perspective’ into politics: we are 40

PrintAccording to an early promotional leaflet, Green Alliance was set up “by a group of individuals concerned that Britain’s political parties were failing to understand or respond to environmental issues”. Plus ça change. With an emphasis on “ideas more than issues”, the organisation aimed “to introduce an ecological perspective into British political life”.

This has been our aim ever since and is needed now more than ever as the scale of the climate and ecological emergency we face becomes clearer. Over our history we have used various methods to achieve it, from poetry and the arts to analysis, thought leadership and brokering historical political pledges.  One ‘softer’ way we do it is by getting people together to talk, to understand the relevance of environmental issues and to catalyse action. Read more

In a Brexit compromise, MPs must consider what’s best for the environment

no deal smallThe prime minister’s announcement that she will work with the opposition to try to reach a compromise on Brexit is very welcome. Both sides need to be flexible. And when MPs get to vote again, they must show a greater willingness to compromise.

Brexit means Brexit, but we still do not know what Brexit means. If we are to find out, MPs must stop asking themselves, ‘what is the best outcome from my point of view?’ and ask instead, ‘what outcomes can I live with?’ Look down the list of how MPs voted on Monday and you will see some of the brightest and best from all parties, including some who care deeply about the environment, who made the best the enemy of the not-wholly-unacceptable. And the not-wholly-unacceptable is probably the best most of us can hope for now, given the pickle we are in. Read more

Brexit: where do we go from here and what does it all mean for environmental politics?

theresa may smallWith parliament apparently unable to agree how to leave the EU, a second referendum and a decision to stay in the EU becomes a serious possibility. Most environmentalists I know were strongly pro-remain in 2016. They know how important the EU has been in raising environmental standards and pushing action on climate change. Read more

Positive policy, hopeless departments and Brexit: reflections on 2018

woodland smallIn normal times, an environmentalist’s reflections on the last year would be pretty positive. I do not want to get carried away.

The scale of the environmental challenges we face is vast and the government, as governments do, spends much of its time making things worse. But 2018 was a much better year in the UK than, say, 2015, when David Cameron aimed to “get rid of the green crap”, or 2016-17, when Theresa May’s climate change sceptic adviser, Nick Timothy (at that time sporting a Rasputin beard) was at the height of his influence. Read more

Why we should celebrate new farm support based on ‘public goods’

meadow-2503453_1920The long awaited agriculture bill has had a pretty resounding thumbs up from environmentalists.  Greener UK described it as “a huge step in the right direction”. Wildlife and Countryside Link called it “an important step forward for farming and wildlife”. WWF’s Tony Juniper tweeted: “For all of the 35 years I’ve been in conservation, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been one of the biggest threats to our wildlife & environment. Today I hope that the tanker begins to turn.” Others heralded “a landmark day” or said that Michael Gove had “fired the starting pistol for change”, or viewed it as “a welcome statement of intent about this Government’s future policy ambitions”. Read more

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