Political print: Are we really governed by environmentalists?

The government is facing some inconvenient truths as patience with its green promises begins to dry up. David Burrows reports.

“I am an environmentalist,” declared Michael Gove in July 2017. “We need to maintain and enhance the natural world around us, or find ourselves facing disaster.” He talked of better protection of the marine environment, “gold standard” policies on pesticides, biodiversity, soil protection and animal welfare and pitched Britain, freed from the EU, as a global leader in environmental protection.

That speech, his first as Defra secretary, was entitled ‘The unfrozen moment – delivering a green Brexit’. But four years on those promises appear to be melting away. “We are in a nature and climate emergency,” said RSPB’s chief executive Beccy Speight recently, but what she and other campaigners are seeing is “a legacy of weakening many of the policies, regulations and legislation we urgently need”.

Greener UK, a coalition of environmental NGOs, has been tracking progress on environmental regulations since June 2016. In March, it published its final analysis, which showed that not one of the eight policy areas was considered ‘low risk’. Environmental protections are “either no stronger or weaker than they were pre-Brexit”.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Gove remains a powerful voice in government but since leaving Defra has he even said the words ‘green Brexit’? Last year, he did speak at the Green Alliance conference, reportedly pointing to what he called “politically, a realisation of the scale of the challenge and the emergency” across the globe.

Details on new policies were, however, scant – as they have been since that day in June 2016. “The extent to which [Brexit] provides opportunities for the UK to enhance or degrade its environmental law remains to be seen,” wrote Richard Macrory, emeritus professor at the faculty of laws, University College London, in a paper for the Academy of European Law in 2019. Two years on and the point still stands.

The environment bill is the chance to offer some much-needed clarity. The good news is that last week it finally returned to Parliament. The government boasted that the bill is “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”. It does contain some notable new measures including a law that will make it illegal for UK businesses to use key commodities linked to illegal deforestation such as soya and palm oil.

Campaigners and opposition parties however remain, if not totally, then largely unconvinced of its ambition, with claims it is being watered down putting habitats and nature at risk both here and overseas. “There is nowhere near enough protection from destructively produced goods arriving through free trade deals,” Green party peer Natalie Bennett told The Guardian.

As Greener UK’s Ruth Chambers noted in an excellent summary of where we are at, this is the “acid test” of the government’s green promises. But will passing legislation that is “riddled with loopholes”, according to NGOs, burn this particular government?

Boris Johnson has in recent weeks only enhanced his reputation as ‘Mr Teflon’. Of course, he has to show some willing on green issues given Glasgow’s hosting of the COP26 climate talks in November. Last year there came a 10-point plan to drive the country towards its new net-zero by 2050 target, while in April a new target to cut emissions by 78% by 2035 was enshrined in law.

Yet there is little evidence that the government comprehends the scale of these challenges. The 10-point plan for example doesn’t mention food – which can contribute up to 25% of our emissions footprint or more – other than the potential to sequester carbon in soil. This, to some, is a staggering omission. “There is no feasible way that we can meet the Paris climate agreement without some level of changes to our diets and farming,” explains Ruth Westcott from Sustain.

As she suggests, if the government is not going to look at the changes required in food production and behaviour – eating less meat and dairy for example – then what is it going to look at? Limiting flights? Arguably we need to do both. Consider this line from a recent report by the public affairs committee (PAC): “As much as 62% of the future reduction in emissions will rely on individual choices and behaviours.”

The government, meanwhile, appears to be putting all its eggs into the technology and science basket, focusing on innovation and dramatic reductions in carbon from energy, homes and transport. The feeling is that this will bring as little disruption to people’s lives as possible – a juicy carrot for a populist administration.

The less detail there is the more wriggle room too. PAC has in recent weeks criticised both the 25-year environment plan and work on net-zero. “… there is little sign that [the government] understands how to get there and almost two years [after setting the target to reach net-zero by 2050] it still has no plan”, the MPs said in March.

But the government should be warned that all this Brexit flexibility and freedom to plough its own regulatory furrow means the buck stops here. Fingers can’t be pointed at ‘ill-thought’ targets agreed in Brussels if plastic continues to wash into seas, newts disappear and poor air quality continues to take lives. The introduction of national accountability is a powerful one.

Saying you are an environmentalist is one thing. Making a difference by taking action is quite another – especially if it takes you outside your comfort zone.

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