Political Print: Defra stumbles on road to Glasgow

The environment department still burns or buries 60% of its waste and is struggling to reduce its emissions. With COP26 looming it needs to set an example, says David Burrows.

David Cameron went from hugging huskies and promising the greenest government ever to cutting the green crap. Boris Johnson, his successor bar one, is now trying to turn the blue party green again – not least to reassure some voters he is not ‘Britain Trump’, as the former US President once referred to him.

It was going quite well. So well in fact that, after releasing a 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution in November, Nigel Farage was prompted to tweet that “the country voted for Boris Johnson and ended up with Caroline Lucas [the Green MP]”.

Farage, as Lucas pointed out, hardly sets a high bar when it comes to environmental policymaking. Still, bereft of detail as the plan was, the signs were encouraging. Two months on and two months closer to November’s COP26 talks in Glasgow and some of the spin seems to be hitting the fan.

A row has erupted in Whitehall after the green light was given for Britain’s first new deep coal mine in decades. Meanwhile, the Environment Bill has been punted into the next parliamentary session, delaying what politicians have been promoting as a key part of this government’s commitment to “be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we inherited it”.

Work on legally binding long-term targets on biodiversity, waste, water and air quality can wait for a few months, it seems. So too can plans to demonstrate how the government will live up to the oft-cited mantra that EU standards on environmental protection won’t just be met, they’ll be exceeded (the move to publish a consultation on gene editing just days after a trade deal was struck certainly raised eyebrows).

“Carrying over the bill to the next session does not diminish our ambition for our environment in any way,” said environment minister Rebecca Pow. Time will tell.

In the meantime Pow might want to have at look at her own department’s record on the environment.

Each department in central government has environment targets to meet, which ran from 2010 to April 2020. Defra oversees these 'greening government commitments' but has missed its own targets on waste and water use – two policy areas it leads on.

In an annex in its 2019/20 annual report there’s a table showing Defra's recycling rate is 40%, which is a shade higher than the 35% it managed in 2009/10 (so it still buries or burns 60% of its waste: 4,550 of 7,526 tonnes). The average recycling rate across all departments assessed was 65% in 2018/19 (the full 2019/20 report should come in the spring). Defra is composting much more of its waste: 1,364 tonnes in 2019/20 versus 266 tonnes the year before and just 75 tonnes in the baseline year.

But those foodservice businesses that have worked tirelessly to reduce their waste might want to look away: a fifth of Defra’s waste still goes to landfill (against a target of under 10%). Most of the other 22 government departments and public bodies have better records. Defra's emissions target has been met but performance still lags many other departments. Not all of the electricity it uses is ‘green’ either (88% is from ‘renewable sources’).

Defra is under pressure but all these results are pre-covid (to March 2020). A spokesperson said: “We take our environmental responsibilities very seriously,” before adding: “We are one of the first government departments to meet the consumer single use plastics targets.” This refers to a 2020 target in the Resources and Waste Strategy to “remove single use plastics from the government estate” (though it’s not yet clear if other departments have met this).

The pandemic, Brexit and the run up to COP26 will see Defra’s work come under even more scrutiny. Indeed, it’s not only struggling to meet the GGC targets – five of the 11 performance targets relating to the policy areas it leads on nationally were also missed. The department fell short on tree planting, recycling of household waste and air quality for example. Timelines for the ambitious waste and resources policies the department is leading on have also begun to slip.

Covid has of course put all departments under strain. But in a year when this government needs to show green leadership ahead of COP26 climate talks (and live up to the rhetoric that standards will be higher outside the EU) its environment department needs to be the envy of the world. Sadly, this isn’t the case. To adapt David Cameron's reported order to officials: Do the ministers and staff telling us all to be green really give a crap?

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