Promises that exiting the EU would leave the UK better placed to protect the environment lie in tatters. By David Burrows.
In a blog just before she became prime minister, Liz Truss claimed she was an environmentalist before it was fashionable. She joined her parents on “marches about saving our planet from CFCs and harm to the ozone layer”.
What she didn’t say, however, was whether she is still an environmentalist (don’t forget she was also a Lib Dem at one point – which has never been fashionable). Has Truss realised, one wonders, if the climate-saving agenda has moved on since the 80s? Carbon and methane, Liz, that’s where the action is these days. Or not.
Indeed, in the first few days of her Downing Street residency, she has given Jacob Rees-Mogg a plum job as energy secretary and stripped Zac Goldsmith of his Defra brief. In at Nobel House (Defra HQ) comes Mark Spencer, the man Goldsmith affectionately referred to earlier this year as “our very own little Bolsonaro. Grim news for nature,” he tweeted following news that Rishi Sunak (remember him?) fancied the cut of Spencer’s jib at the environment department too.
What’s not to like: Spencer is a farmer – tick – and has generally voted against measures to prevent climate change – tick. The new anti-green team Truss is pulling together has made NGOs understandably cross. Chief among their concerns is, well, everything. Rivers, air, climate, food, soil, seas and biodiversity (including those newts), are all at risk of declining further. ‘Be afraid’, was the headline last week in Ends Report’s analysis of the current environmental policy landscape.
This isn’t the country we were promised after Brexit. Back then, Michael Gove was striding around the corridors of Nobel House, breathing life into a department that had long been forgotten at cabinet level (bar avian flu outbreaks, floods and mishandling of farmer payments). He wasn’t great but he was better than anyone expected.
But the green of Brexit is being washed away, and there is every reason we should be very worried indeed.
Outside the EU, the UK shifts from relying on legal certainty to relying on continued political ambition, Viviane Gravey, from Queen’s University Belfast and co-chair of the Brexit & Environment group of academics, told me recently. That is more democratic, you might say. There is certainly the potential for enhanced rules but it relies heavily on political will – which means there’s potential to “wreck things on a much bigger scale than is the case at EU level”, she warned.
In his book, The dirty man of Europe, Chris Rose details the ecological misrule of Britain in the 1980s. Without pressure from Europe, he wrote, it is difficult to see how the country would have made any environmental progress in that period. Making a judgement on whether the UK will revert to the type cast by Rose just two years on from Brexit would be folly. But to trust in the new prime minister and her government would appear equally foolish.
Feargal Sharkey, musician and vice president of charity WildFish, has said that “not only the environment but society at large should be very afraid”, as he described Truss’s previous climate crime sheet when she was Defra secretary. The Environment Agency’s capacity was slashed on her watch, for example.
The regulator is slowly dying by cuts. That is a sure sign of a government that knows the public cares about the environment but doesn’t want to deliver the change, according Tom Burke, co-founder of think tank E3G (as a former special advisor to three environment secretaries in 90s he knows a thing or two about how this all works). He told me the approach is to stop regulators monitoring and enforcing legislation rather than get rid of them altogether.
Whether the government, in planning to rip up more environmental legislation, has misjudged the mood of the public is moot.
After losing its majority in 2017, the Conservatives carried out an assessment into the party’s ‘political values architecture’. This unearthed the topics it was marginally behind Labour on and which had the most significant impact on voters’ perceptions of a party’s values – and one of them was the environment. Cue the 25 year environment plan and the Environment Act: the former basically an essay full of ambiguity and ambition; the latter a potentially world-leading piece of legislation (if the powers it offers are actually used). Climate still polls high among public concerns, and the droughts and heatwaves of the summer have begun to turn something distant into a lived experience for Brits.
Still, Sharkey’s screams are music to the ears of the climate-sceptic – sorry, net-zero prudent – faction of the Conservative Party. Speaking of which: to appoint Jacob Rees-Mogg, a climate sceptic, to head up the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy at this time of increasing planetary emergency, is “dangerous, radical” madness. Not my words, but those of Architects Declare, a coalition of more than 1,000 architectural practices that have declared a climate emergency.
This is an MP who has voted 16 times out of 16 against climate bills, talks of squeezing “every last cubic inch of gas” from the North Sea (despite advice that it will do nothing to ease prices for consumers) and has spoken against the net-zero targets. It’s a surprise the New Statesman could only come up with five reasons JR-M is “unfit to tackle the climate emergency”.
It’s not just the green rules the new government finds unpalatable – there is also reportedly little appetite from Thérèse Coffey – the new health secretary – or Truss for ‘nanny state stuff’. People “don’t want the government telling them what to eat”, the prime minister told the Daily Mail recently.
The Guardian broke the news last week that the government is planning a review of its obesity strategy. Industry lobbying groups smell blood – or rather the chance to sell more fried chicken, chocolates and fizzy drinks. Some of the planned regulations have already been delayed and there is concern among some campaigners that newly introduced calorie labels could be in the firing line, and even the successful soft drinks industry levy could be dissolved.
This could leave other Pigouvian taxes, like the one of plastic packaging, similarly exposed. Some industry groups, including the Food and Drink Federation and UKHospitality, are already pushing for a pause on packaging regulations in light of the current crisis. Another industry group this week informed its members that all the early signs of Truss’s tenure point to implications for future environmental policy development. That is, there is unlikely to be any.