7 pressing green policy challenges Rishi Sunak must tackle as Prime Minister

New Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has a lot on his plate amid the ongoing cost of living crisis and Covid-19 recovery - and also a major to-do list regarding environmental policy. Here, we round up seven key priorities.

7 pressing green policy challenges Rishi Sunak must tackle as Prime Minister

Image: 10 Downing Street

A little over three months ago, edie.net was covering Boris Johnson’s resignation as Prime Minister and outlining eight of the environmental policy updates which he had continued to be pressed on but ultimately failed to deliver. 

Fast-forward to today (26 October) and, less than two weeks after Liz Truss’s resignation, Rishi Sunak is holding his first Cabinet meeting after conducting his first reshuffle. The jury is out on whether Truss did anything beneficial for the green economy in her short tenure, with most stating that more harm than good was done. So, with this in mind, we’re updating our green policy to-do list, this time for Sunak.

1) Clarifying the future of fracking

Fracking, some have argued, was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Truss. Dozens of rebel Tories voted to bring back the effective ban on fracking earlier this month after being told that doing so would be a vote of no confidence in Truss. Included in this cohort was Kwasi Kwarteng, Truss’s first Chancellor and former Energy Secretary.

Maintaining the moratorium on fracking was a pledge detailed in the Conservative Party Manifesto at the last general election in 2019. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has recommended keeping the ban in place to support an orderly net-zero transition.

Sunak, like Truss, stated during his leadership campaign that he would permit fracking in communities that supported it. However, evidence continues to emerge that there may be no communities of this nature. Moreover, Sunak may wish to backtrack on fracking to avoid further agitating divisions in the Party.

UPDATE: At Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) on Wednesday (26 October), Sunak was asked by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas to clarify the future of fracking in the UK. The Prime Minister said he “stands by” the Party’s 2019 Manifesto’s commitment on fracking.

2) Allaying concerns over farmer payment schemes

Unfortunately, Ranil Jayawardena’s short tenure as Environment Secretary is likely to be best remembered for reports that his Department was planning to scrap plans for new subsidy schemes for farmers intended to improve nature.

Under Jayawardena, the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) also faced much scrutiny over allegations that it is planning to effectively ban most solar farms in the pipeline for agricultural land.

Defra is due to publish the subsidy scheme proposals later this week and we will shortly know whether a change in Prime Minister will impact the timelines. Sunak has been facing calls from NGOs and farmers alike to keep the new subsidy scheme in place.

The solar move has also been widely criticised, partly given its timing amid the energy price crisis. Farmers have also pointed to solar as a means to diversify and increase their incomes. Analytical organisations like Carbon Brief have also pointed out that solar, in the UK, takes up far less agricultural space than sectors such as biofuels, accounting for just 0.1% of all land in the UK.

3) Confirming Environment Bill targets

In his membership of the Conservative Environment Network, Sunak has pledged to support the Environment Bill. The Bill went through a frought two-year passage in Parliament but ultimately passed into law last November, paving the way for a post-Brexit environmental watchdog in the UK, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP).

Another key inclusion in the Bill is the creation and implementation of legally binding targets on biodiversity, water quality, air quality and other key topics. The targets should mirror legally binding targets on emissions. Targets were proposed in spring but swiftly criticized for lacking ambition, considering that the UK is not on track to deliver the 25-Year Environment Plan’s vision of improving nature within a generation. The OEP itself said the targets were not science-based, comprehensive or ambitious.

Defra was due to provide an update on the targets by the end of October 2022 at the latest. All eyes are now on the Department’s new Secretary, Therese Coffey, for more news.

4) Avoiding a ‘race to the bottom’ on post-Brexit standards

Truss’s Government was accused, collectively, by the UK’s largest and most influential environmental NGOs, of an “attack on nature”. This was partly down to the farmer subsidy reports mentioned above, and also due to plans for relaxing development rules sharply in ‘Investment Zones’. Even beyond these zones, much regulation is currently on the metaphorical chopping block due to the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill.

This Bill is intended to remove many EU laws that were transcribed into UK law by the end of 2023, with the remainder to be phased out through to 2026.Green Alliance has argued that the Bill would “sweep away more than 2,000 laws that protect the environment and safeguard workers’ rights, consumer safety and animal welfare”. Charities and trade unions have also called for the Bill to be shelved, amended or simply scrapped.

Sunak, like Truss, advocated for the removal of EU laws post-Brexit, but seems to be less in favour of widespread deregulation.

5) Prioritising energy efficiency

One of the key green policy pledges in the Conservative Party’s 2019 General Election manifesto was £9bn+ of public funding for improving energy efficiency. This is an area which, since David Cameron took over from Gordon Brown in 2010, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has been highlighting as one with significant policy gaps, with the UK playing host to some of the leakiest buildings in the Global North. The pledge was, therefore, welcomed.

Johnson and Truss have been repeatedly criticised for failing to bring forth a new national home insulation plan to replace the Green Deal and then the Green Homes Grant. While the Conservatives have, since 2019, increased retrofit funding for social homes and the public sector, many want this extended to all homes, coupled with specific support for businesses.

The Conservative Party is aiming for all UK homes to have an EPC rating of ‘C’ or higher by 2035. Sunak is being called upon to help get the UK on track to meeting this goal, recognising the climate and social benefits that it could bring.

6) Passing the Energy Security Bill

The Energy Security Bill was introduced in July and is designed to deliver on many of the key measures detailed in the Energy Security Strategy.

These include the creation of new business models for low-carbon hydrogen and carbon capture and storage, designed to reduce investment risk; the appointment of Ofgem as heat networks regulator; the trial of a ‘Hydrogen Village’ by 2025 and more. Read edie’s full story here.

Under Truss, Climate Minister Graham Stuart confirmed that the Bill had been shelved. This means it lies with Sunak and his new Energy Secretary, Greg Hands, to pick it up once more and continue its passage through Parliament.

Many of the Bill’s inclusions have been welcomed by the green economy as necessary to achieving the ambitions set out in the Energy Security Strategy, which is headlined by an ambition to accelerate the transition towards clean energy through to 2035. But environmental groups will doubtless contest measures intended to end environmental protests that disrupt the fossil fuel sector and call for additional inclusions on energy efficiency.

7) Making the Net-Zero Strategy ‘lawful’

The High Court ruled in July that the UK Government’s Net-Zero Strategy was unlawful. The ruling, which came after legal challenges from Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth, accounted for the fact that the Strategy contains no time-bound, sector-specific emissions cuts, and details policies which would not deliver the levels of decarbonisation necessary for the UK to meet its long-term climate goal and interim carbon budgets.

Under Truss, BEIS confirmed that it would not challenge the High Court’s ruling.

The High Court gave the Government nine months to update the Strategy, bringing us through to April 2023. Sunak’s new top team will need to get to work quickly to deliver the update on time while raising levels of detail and ambition to the levels needed for the Strategy to be lawful.

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