8 pressing green policy challenges the next UK Prime Minister must tackle
Boris Johnson has delivered an official resignation speech outside of Downing Street, after a chaotic few days of resignations topping off months of turmoil for his Government. His replacement will have a lot on their plate amid the ongoing cost of living crisis and Covid-19 recovery - and also a major to-do list regarding environental policy.
Johnson gave a resignation speech outside Downing Street at 12.30pm today (7 July). His intention is to relunctantly stand down as Party Leader immediately but to continue acting as a ‘caretaker’ Prime Minister. The replacement Prime Minister should be in post, it is being reported, by the Conservative Party’s conference in October. Whether Ministers will accept this remains to be seen.
Already, at this early stage, names familiar and less known are throwing their names in the hat for the forthcoming Conservative Party leadership race. Johnson has described this job as “the greatest in the world” but some commentators have said that, at this specific moment in time, it is a “poisoned chalice”. Whoever takes up the job will have all manner of crises to tackle, within and beyond the Party. Much is being said about the need for strong leadership in the face of the cost of living crisis and to continue the UK’s relationship with Ukraine as the war rages on.
Less has been said about the UK’s net-zero transition, even though the Government had designated this week as a designated time for awareness-raising. Here, edie looks back at recent key green policy developments to identify the remaining gaps – the task of closing which will likely fall to Johnson’s successor. From green energy investment to supporting farmers, this article outlines nine key green policy ‘to-do’ list items for the next Prime Minister.
1) Getting clear on 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.
Fast-forward to today. Under Johnson, the Government has provided enhanced energy efficiency support for public sector buildings and social housing. Yet the UK still has no new national home insulation plan, despite continued pressure from businesses, green groups and civil society. The Energy Security Strategy promised a ‘fabric-first’ approach to energy efficiency improvements, with Conservatives reluctant to ask for behaviour change, but there was scant detail.
The next Prime Minister will know that, with the Government’s commitment to ensure that all homes have an EPC rating of ‘C’ or higher by 2035, such a scheme is necessary. This is only more true in the face of the immediate and continuing energy price crisis. They will know what not to do in developing and delivering a replacement by learning the lessons of the botched £1bn Green Homes Grant.
As well as improving the energy efficiency of existing homes, the PM will have challenges at hand to ensure that new homes are aligned with net-zero and won’t need retrofitting in the future. The original zero carbon homes policy was scrapped in 2015. Changes to Buildings Regulations and the new Future Homes and Buildings Standard are incoming, designed to ensure that all new homes are “zero-carbon ready by 2025”. Calls have repeatedly been made to bring this deadline forward.
2) Passing the Energy Security Bill
In any other week, the introduction of the Energy Security Bill to Parliament would have received more attention. The Bill was introduced on Wednesday (6 July) and is designed to deliver on many of the key measures detailed in the Energy Security Strategy, and other recent green policy packages such as the Hydrogen 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.
However, there isn’t actually an accompanying document that is available for external scrutiny yet, a trend that is largely becoming a tradition under this Government.
The Government’s approach to unveiling strategies in recent months has been to send journalists and green groups an embargoed press release (usually for around midnight) detailing the main aspects of the new green strategy, knowing it will make the headlines in the morning. However, the actual document, which is required to properly scrutinise a strategy and see how detailed it is, doesn’t tend to arrive until a few days after, at which point it is already out of the mainstream media spotlight.
We’re yet to see the Energy Security Bill and it remains to be seen when it will be published given the upheaval taking place in Government right now. Energy security is of paramount importance to the nation right now and the detail needs to be scrutinised.
Even without the text, experts are warning that the Bill can expect a bumpy passage – not only because of the shift in Conservative Party leadership. The fact that it contains no major new information on energy efficiency, as explained above, is a key sticking point.
The CCC is also warning that there are still risks surrounding the deployment of renewables and nuclear over the next decade that need to be addressed. Flexibility at scale is also lacking definition and focus at a political level, including onshore and offshore network capacity and access and the removal of supply chain bottlenecks.
The CCC stated in its recent progress report to Parliament that the power sector is lacking an “overarching” delivery plan and strategy, akin to the Transport Decarbonisation Plan. This would “improve visibility and confidence for private sector investors and should be developed as a priority”, the CCC added in its recent progress report to Parliament.
So, one key question for the next Prime Minister is whether an umbrella strategy can be delivered to allow for the UK’s grid to be fully decarbonised by 2035.
Measures included in the Bill to end environmental protests that disrupt fossil energy supplies are also going to be controversial. The Bill would give the Government new powers to block “malicious” protests before they begin, after oil terminals were blockaded by Extinction Rebellion this spring. This crackdown was perhaps to be expected after the passing of the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, which gave police chiefs more powers to punish protestors.
3) Firming up Environment Bill targets
Johnson had chosen a selection of pro-Brexit Ministers for his Cabinet and has sought to sell the benefits of the UK’s departure from the EU. In environmental terms, Brexit was framed by his Government as an opportunity to strengthen governance and policy compared with the EU, particularly on issues such as sustainable agriculture.
As part of the Brexit process, the UK set up its own environmental watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). The OEP published its first report in May, assessing progress toward the Government’s 25-Year Environment Plan commitment to leave nature in an improved state for the next generation. That report stated that policy and strategy have, since the Plan was introduced under Theresa May, “not yet proven successful in significantly slowing down, halting or reversing biodiversity decline or the unsustainable use of resources, or the pollution of the environment” in England.
Defra had attempted to accelerate progress by proposing new legally binding targets on biodiversity, habitat production, water consumption, water pollution, waste and air quality for the 2020s and 2030s. Such targets will be enshrined in law through the Environment Bill. Just this week, the OEP stated that these targets are not ambitious enough. The body also asked for more action to close potential loopholes in the environmental principles detailed in the Bill. This will probably now be a task for the next Environment Secretary.
4) Improving the meat of the National Food Strategy
July 2021 saw a team lead by Henry Dimbleby publishing a string of recommendations for a new National Food Strategy. With the food system accounting for one-fifth of the UK’s emissions and with the Government grasping the need to work with farmers to converve and improve nature, Dimbleby highlighted recommendations on reducing emissions, improving efficiency, working with nature and promoting more sustainable diets.
The Government’s response, published in June, saw precious few of these recommendations drawn up. It was, by and large, a disappointment to the green economy and to farmers – groups so often pitted against one another.
The next Prime Minister has an opportunity to deliver a truly transformational, once-in-a-generation update to food-related policy that tackles interlinked challenges including environmental sustainability, public health, food access and pricing, and pay for farmers.
Time will tell if the updated response is oven-ready, or less than half-baked. The CCC’s recent progress report to Parliament notably highlighted agriculture as a key sector with insufficient policy and regulation to play its role in the net-zero transition by 2050.
5) Outlining next steps for green finance
At COP26, then-Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced plans to make the UK the ‘world’s first net-zero financial centre’ and to contribute to global efforts to “rewire the financial system for net-zero”. Measures taken to support this transition include the launch of a £16bn sovereign green bond package and the launch of a net-zero transition plan mandate for large, high-emitting businesses from 2023. These moves built on the launch of the Green Finance Institute in 2019 and the UK’s National Infrastructure Bank in 2021.
Organisations including WWF, Aviva and the Aldersgate Group have warned in recent times that more policy intervention is needed for Sunak’s vision to be realised. They are calling for strong requirements for net-zero transition plans and measures to stop public finance going to projects that would certainly undermine the net-zero transition, among other changes. There is also the matter of how ‘green’ finance is defined, with greenwashing remaining prevalent.
The EU this week voted in favour of plans to include gas and nuclear projects in its green finance taxonomy, a decision supported by these industries and posed as a means of ensuring an orderly transition – especially amid the war in Ukraine. Climate activitsts say the decision will undermine the EU’s ability to reach its net-zero targets and lead to more greenwashing in the finance sector. Here in the UK, the Government has been cautioned against including gas and nuclear in its own forthcoming taxonomy by organisations including the UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association (UKSIF), which represents more than 270 organisations with more than £10trn of assets under management.
The taxonomy will form part of an updated Green Finance Strategy, expected from the Government later this year. If Johnson remains a ‘caretaker’ PM until October, this may fall to him – but this is by no means guaranteed, and the turmoil may well result in delays to the Strategy’s publication.
6) Delivering a clear plan to close the green skills gap
Shortly after the publication of the Net-Zero Strategy last October, MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) warned that it only detailed the creation of a further 440,000 green jobs by 2030, while the Government’s target is two million. The EAC also argued that, without an official definition of what makes a role “green”, Ministers cannot credibly claim to be developing robust job creation plans to remedy the fact that the UK only hosted 207,800 green jobs in 2020.
Under Johnson, the Government created a Green Jobs Taskforce featuring representatives from businesses, trade bodies, education and NGOs. The Taskforce’s has published one major briefing with another due this year.
It will sit with the next Prime Minister to deliver on the Taskforce’s recommendations. These include a properly updated Careers Strategy and/or Skills Strategy which takes into account the need for changing skills as the UK delivers on its climate and nature goals, and as the digital transition continues. This will be important not only for climate reasons – the delivery of effective national schemes hinges on having enough trained professionals to complete them – but for the delivery of Government promises on international trade of clean technologies post-Brexit and on ‘levelling up’ regions domestically.
7) Getting councils, businesses and people on board
As well as providing an assessment of emissions reductions to date in key sectors and forecasting likely emissions trajectories, the CCC’s recent progress report to Parliament assessed how the central Government is engaging with key stakeholders like local councils and the private sector.
It raises concern that the Government has not created an engagement strategy around net-zero, designed to increase awareness and understanding, and to enable collaboration on solutions. The UK Government did host a net-zero November in 2019 and is in the middle of its net-zero awareness week now (if you can believe it), but the CCC wants to see something longer-term and more joined-up.
The CCC report states that the Government will need to provide more information on its plans for working with councils, who have time and again said they need better access to finance and training to deliver their net-zero plans.
It also presses the Government to set out a full overview of the costs and benefits of the net-zero transition and how they will be shared. Without this information, some businesses, MPs and parts of the general public are seeing net-zero as a chore or an economic and social burden rather than an opportunity – and a necessity to avoiding far greater financial and social risks in the future.
Aside from communications, the CCC is calling for an “urgent” review of the tax strategy to ensure that all measures are conducive to the net-zero transition and an “urgent and comprehensive” plan to reform planning legislation. Time will tell whether the new Government heeds these calls.
8) Ending accusations of climate hypocrisy
Despite the recent success of the fourth round of the Contract for Difference (CfD) scheme that saw 11GW of renewables capacity secure contracts, there have been ongoing discussions as to whether the UK needs to turn to fossil fuels to temporarily combat the energy cost spike that is expected to grow even higher in the winter months.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng confirmed on Thursday (7 July), that Drax has agreed to push back the planned closure of its coal-fired Yorkshire power plant by six months. Now scheduled to close in March 2023, the plant “will not generate commercially for the duration of the agreement” and will only operate if instructed to do so by National Grid. It is also worth noting that much of its operations at its two remaining coal units have been switched to biomass.
Elsewhere, the Jackdaw oil field received final approval this week. And, also this week, an expected decision as to whether a new coal mine is approved in Cumbria has been delayed due to the ongoings in Government. A decision on the coal mine was due on Thursday, but we are no longer sure as to when it will be published.
Green groups have continuously warned that the coking coal mine, which would produce coal to be used for steelmaking in the UK and abroad, should not go ahead. Supporters of the planning approval claim it would help lower energy bills, but green groups have warned that most of the coal would be exported and therefore not assist with lowering energy bills.
Given that the CCC claims that the mine is projected to increase UK emissions by 0.4Mt CO2e per year – which is greater than the level of annual emissions it has projected from all open UK coal mines to 2050 – the green economy wants reassurances that fossil fuels will be left in the ground for good.
This is important not only domestically, but internationally. The UK will continue to hold the COP26 presidency until Egypt takes over in November, and other nations will be looking to the UK for examples of how to manage the energy transition. Other projects which have seen the UK branded a ‘climate hypocrite’ include the Heathrow Airport expansion, the Cambo oil field and UK Export Finance’s historic backing for fossil fuels in the Global South.
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