The Heathrow domino: Is Government nearing the promised land of joined-up climate policy?

The Government has long been urged to approach climate change through the lens of coherent, joined-up thinking and during a 'year of climate action' in the UK the first Heathrow-shaped domino may just have fallen to kickstart a new approach to climate policy.

The Heathrow domino: Is Government nearing the promised land of joined-up climate policy?

There was a 10-year period, between the mid-1990s and early-2000s, where “joined-up Government” was the mantra of those residing in power. It was akin to political catchphrases of recent years, such as the robotic “strong and stable” tagline of Theresa May’s ministerial reign and Boris Johnson’s slogan spectrum for Brexit, ranging from “oven-ready” to the gridlock-smashing “get Brexit done”.

These phrases all have a commonality; they are the proverbial sledgehammer to which the Government will continuously hit the public over the head with, until we are tricked into believing it in some resemblance. Another slogan that has been splashed across the front pages recently is a “year of climate action” as part of the build-up to COP26 in Glasgow later this year; delivery on that slogan will likely depend on how well Government can embed climate responses into each department.

Despite leaving the European Union, Brexit is most definitely not done, and more than 20 years later the notion of a joined-up Government is still about as misguided as Dominic Cummings’ ‘just-off-to-the-chippy’ fashion sense.

As recently as last summer, the Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) Lord Deben was (again) reciting the need for a joined-up approach to policy in the UK. Lord Deben, was appearing before the Environmental Audit Committee to discuss the UK’s recent confirmation that a net-zero emissions target has been set, and that is was legally binding.

In the session, Lord Deben noted that departments were likely unclear of their sphere of responsibility for the net-zero target and how their policies would impact the net-zero aspiration. This, he said, would need to change.

Fast-forward seven months, and are there signs that a legally binding net-zero target is starting to impact departments outside of BEIS and Defra, where climate and the environment have been historically siloed?

The Heathrow effect

The UK Government was quick to respond to yesterday’s ruling (27 February) by the Court of Appeal, that upheld the challenge issued by environmental groups that the Heathrow expansion was unlawful on climate grounds. The decision found that the Government's Airports National Policy Statement (ANPS) to approve the expansion was “unlawful” as it didn't align to the needs of the Paris Agreement.

Judges noted that the former transport secretary Chris Grayling had failed to take the discussion on climate change, and impending legislation – namely Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement – into account. The Government has said it will not appeal the decision, leaving Heathrow Airport to find a potential method to align any expansion with the UK’s net-zero target, as well as its own. In fact, I will stress that Heathrow's efforts to achieve carbon-neutral status for its infrastructure to date should be lauded.

The dust is still settling on the historic court decision, but already the dominoes are starting to fall. The BBC has reported that a £28.8bn new roads programme could be challenged in the courts after it learnt that proposals don’t take emissions reduction commitments into account.

The plans aren’t due to be published until next month, but already environmental campaigners have been boosted by a renewed and invigorated purpose that they can actually hold the Government to account – and make no mistake, they are eager to do so.

The major stumbling point for ministers now, apart from the fact that cabinet reshuffles are as frequent as the eponymous damage caused by storms, is that many major infrastructural projects are still vying for climate compatibility based on old UK commitments. The 80% reduction target envisioned by the 2008 Climate Change Act has been upgraded, but mitigation of the impact of these major projects hasn’t.

As a result, some authorities are now having to make big decisions on major projects. A scheme to expand Bristol airport has been rejected following protests that it would exacerbate the climate emergency, while the Welsh government has binned plans for a new road system around Newport on similar grounds.

There are always exceptions to the rule (and in the case of UK climate policy, the exceptions are usually numerous) and HS2 has recently been given the green light. The UK Government is adamant that it can accelerate the net-zero transition, but even this approval is subject to doubt.

COP26: The role of the many

It’s early days, but the impetus is on Government to embed climate change impacts into every political decision, from low-carbon industrial clusters to renewable heating from homes, knowing that there will be ferocious opposition if they don't. These decisions will involve different departments, different regions and different decision-makers and could finally deliver us to the promised land of a joined-up Government.

Now, more than ever, businesses and the public must lobby and advocate for this change. The UK Government has promised a year of climate action in the build-up to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow and needs to be seen as walking the talk on this slogan (it will also need to submit an updated NDC, which, as the ECIU explains, is no simple matter).

The net-zero target, the subsequent push to host COP26, and the potential derailing of major infrastructure designed to deliver a “global Britain” all stem from grassroots movements. It is the school strikers taking to the streets to make their voice heard, the Extinction Rebellion protestors lobbying for change, and the businesses consulting on political amendments and introductions that vocally pulled us to where we are today - the cusp of a net-zero transition. These voices still need to be loud and still need to point the Government firmly in the direction of that transition.

Perhaps it is too soon for optimism, perhaps this domino fell the wrong way. The Heathrow decision could still be overturned, but if it does it will be on reflection that it is compatible with a net-zero UK. The roads programme is yet to be unveiled, let along contested. But, it is fitting that a historic week for environmental groups and UK policy ends with Greta Thunberg meeting thousands of climate strikers in Bristol to remind people activism is effective. And let’s not forget, today’s activists are tomorrow’s activators.

Matt Mace

Topics: Green policy
Tags: | cop26 | heathrow airport | HS2 | Infrastructure | low carbon | Green Policy | net-zero
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