Ending the post-Brexit ‘bonfire’ and enhancing energy skills: 7 key green policy gaps for the UK Government to close in 2023
As we enter a New Year, edie reflects on the green policy decision taken and missed in the UK in 2022, laying out seven policy gaps for Rishi Sunak and his Cabinet to work to close in 2023.
With the long-term direction of travel set by the 25-Year Environment Plan and legally binding net-zero target, the devil is now in the detail. Policymaking this decade will be crucial to lay the foundations for the changes needed to create a net-zero, nature-positive economy here in the UK.
Yet the Government has faced practical challenges in delivering any policy to time in the second half of 2022 – green or otherwise – amid two changes in leadership. Boris Johnson resigned as Prime Minister in July and his successor, Liz Truss, appointed in September. She served just 45 days in office and was replaced by her opponent in the original leadership race, former Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Sunak did pause or overturn some of the policy measures made by Truss that were concerning to green groups, but fumbled on climate optics by originally declining his invitation to COP27. He did ultimately go, for one day, after Johnson accepted his invite – but his speech failed to impress environmental NGOs. He also did not heed requests to attend biodiversity COP15 negotiations in Montreal.
As the weeks have progressed, it has become clear that Sunak still has a hefty green policy to-do list in his intray. Here, we round up seven green policy gaps his Government will need to address in the coming year.
- Avoiding a post-Brexit ‘bonfire’ of environmental safeguards
Truss and Sunak alike campaigned on promises to ensure that UK law diverges from EU law in instances where this could create higher standards and economic benefits. Under Truss, the Government ushered in the Retained Law Bill, which is designed to ensure that the majority of EU laws retained in the UK post-Brexit expire at the end of 2023. The rest of the laws should then be phased out by June 2026.
The Bill was swiftly criticised by green groups who claimed that hasty changes could lead to a downgrade in environmental and social standards. Moreover, delivering the Bill, some have argued, would redirect civil service resources from progressing the pressing changes to legislation needed to meet key climate and nature targets, following years of delays already.
The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) itself has now warned the Government against a rushed approach to ‘sunsetting’ EU legislation. It is recommending that the 2023 deadline is moved.
The OEP’s chair Dame Glenys Stacey said: “If done well, this review could make environmental law better. But done badly, or rushed unduly, it could compound environmental problems and create new uncertainties and burdens. Rushed law-making is not conducive to addressing environmental problems that are difficult, complex, inter-connected and long-term. It runs the risk of undermining the UK Government’s own environmental ambitions and international standing.
“Hundreds of environmental laws could be revoked or amended under the Bill. These laws are critical to solving pressing challenges such as nature depletion and the quality of air and water and marine environments. Worryingly, the Bill does not offer any safety net, there is no requirement to maintain existing levels of environmental protection.”
- Making the Net-Zero Strategy lawful
July 2022 saw the High Court ruling that the UK Government’s Net-Zero Strategy, published in late 2021 in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow, is unlawful. The Court sided with Friends of the Earth and ClientEarth as they argued that the Strategy does not contain the level of funding or detail needed to be aligned with net-zero by 2050, nor with the UK’s interim carbon budgets.
The Court gave the UK Government nine months to amend the Strategy, which will bring us to March 2023. By this point, Chris Skidmore MP’s net-zero review will be complete and the Government should be working on its detailed response to the resulting recommendations. This should form a good basis for updating the Strategy.
edie’s own Net-Zero Business Barometer survey of 148 energy and sustainability professionals, conducted online in September and October, revealed that most of these professionals are very keen for the Government to update the Strategy as a priority. 59% of respondents classed this move as a top-three priority for policymakers.
- Closing the growing green skills gap
Shortly after the publication of the Net-Zero Strategy, 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. We are not sure whether the Taskforce will continue to exist under Sunak. Moreover, the Government is yet to provide a formal definition of what constitutes a ‘green job’ or to provide a thorough update to its plans for skills or education.
So far, with Sunak in charge, the Government has confirmed £9.2m of funding to upskill workers in the energy, heating and buildings sectors to help with the installations of clean heating and energy efficiency solutions for homes. This will be crucial as the UK works to reduce energy consumption by 15% by 2030 – an ambition announced in Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s first fiscal statement on 17 November. However, we will need an approach that is more holistic and less piecemeal to meet retrofit targets – and that’s before we come onto other kinds of green jobs, in fields like electric car manufacturing and nature conservation.
- Supporting farmers to champion sustainability
Truss’s short tenure, in the green economy, will likely be remembered for her willingness to pit economic growth and environmental sustainability against each other. In no sector was this clearer, arguably, than agriculture. Truss described solar panels as “parephenalia” and argued that building them out would compromise food security, despite evidence to the contrary provided by both the renewables sector and farmers.
It was reported in early October 2022 that Defra was looking to extend its ban on solar for high-grade farmland to land categorised as 3b, or “sub-grade”. Land within this category accounts for the majority of the planned pipeline for ground-mounted solar on farms. The ban already applies to grade 1, 2 and 3a land.
Also under Truss, the Government was reportedly set to propose changes to the flagship Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs), ending measures that would see farmers paid for conserving and restoring soils, nature, water and other resources. The ELMs are set to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) post-Brexit and the change is an opportunity to disincentivise farming approaches that prioritise short-term yields over long-term sustainability. Natural England and other organisations have spoken out about the reported proposals.
Both of these moves were shelved as Truss resigned as Sunak was appointed. Defra’s Therese Coffey, who holds the top job at the Department, has indicated that the solar ban proposal is likely to go ahead. However, regarding the ELMs reforms, a Department spokesperson said that no changes have been made and that the Government will “press ahead” with the ELMs. The spokesperson did say that there will be “some fine-tuning” and that “more details will be provided in due course”.
Defra is being pushed for ELMs clarity by a coalition of more than 50 organisations operating in the food system, led by WWF. A letter sent to the Department in December 2022 by the coalition called for “the vision, clarity, and detail on the rollout of ELMs to plan into an uncertain future”. Defra reiterated that further announcements on the schemes would be coming soon.
- Firming up 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 2022, 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, as mentioned above. Dimbleby’s proposals on free school meals and reducing meat and dairy consumption were among those failing to make the cut for the Government’s interpretation.
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has stated that the agriculture and land use sectors have been among the worst with net-zero progress to date. Closing policy gaps here must, therefore, be a priority for Sunak and his Government if he wishes to be seen as a ‘green’ PM. Fine-tuning the Food Strategy is also an opportunity to address other challenges for Sunak, including food security, public health and fair pay for farmers.
- Unlocking onshore wind
Onshore wind development in England was effectively banned under David Cameron in 2016. The Government did add onshore wind back into the Contracts for Difference (CfD) auction rounds’ eligibility criteria in 2020 under Johnson but planning restrictions were kept in place.
Now, with gas prices at record highs and with the UK working to end electricity generation from unabated gas by 2035, the Government is facing calls to couple its lofty ambitions for offshore wind with at least some changes to support onshore wind development.
Some of these calls are coming from within the Conservative Party itself. Simon Clarke MP tabled an amendment to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, to include a clause that would lift planning restrictions for onshore wind in areas where communities have voiced support for development. Again, following this amendment would seem to fit with the narrative of the Net-Zero Review – to make the transition as “pro-growth and pro-business” as possible.
Supporting Clarke were almost two-dozen Conservative MPs including Truss and Johnson. The Conservative Environment Network, which has more than 100 Tory MPs signed up, has also publicly spoken out in favour of Clarke’s proposal.
The amendment was ultimately adopted and we can expect the Bill to progress to Royal Assent this year. The Bill was introduced in May and is currently progressing through the House of Lords.
- Navigating fossil fuel backlash
Despite strong rhetoric at COP26 and the best efforts of summit President Alok Sharma, the UK is widely regarded as having fumbled international optics around climate leadership at – and since – the summit.
The Energy Security Strategy, published in April 2022, confirmed plans previously floated to hold a major oil and gas licencing round in the autumn/winter season, leading to increased questions about the compatibility of the government’s energy transition approach with its own legally binding climate targets.
While the move to lift the ban on fracking was short, the licencing round is proceeding, despite threats of legal action. Sunak’s climate minister has maintained that the UK can increase oil and gas production in the near-term and meet its legal pledges. Nonetheless, the decision on the Rosebank oil and gas field is facing delays, with project lead Equinor required to provide more information on how the project complies with the sector’s transition requirements and the corporate’s own climate targets. This does set a precedent, especially when one considers that the Cambo project has also faced delays.
Oil and gas aren’t the only fossil fuels in the spotlight. After a string of delays, Levelling Up Secretary and former Environment Secretary Michael Gove gave West Cumbia Mining permission to develop the UK’s first deep coal mine in more than 30 years near Whitehaven in December 2022. Gove was satisfied that there will be a demand for coal from British steelmakers and steelmakers abroad for the years to come and stated that he did not consider a “compelling case” for electric arc furnaces, hydrogen direct reduction or other cleantech options to displace coal in the sector. Some cleantech and steel business commentators have disagreed.
Gove also argued that the mine would not result in additional coal use, but, rather, displace the use of coal from elsewhere. He noted that this could be a good thing given the mine’s requirement to operate on a ‘net-zero’ basis. This claim has been widely rubbished, with plans to offset emissions from the project deemed “absurd”. Critics also argue that the UK should be encouraging steelmakers in other countries to follow its low-carbon lead and should be aware that its calls to phase out coal at UN Climate COPs may now carry little weight internationally.
Beyond the environmental impact of the mine, eyebrows have been raised by the fact that the mine will ultimately be owned by EMR Capital, a private equity fund based out of the Cayman Islands – a tax haven. Another broadly-questioned aspect of the situation is that Gove was provided with recommendations by a former coal miner.
As we enter a new year, we can expect more criticism from policymakers at home and abroad over the UK’s fossil fuel approach. There will also likely be new legal challenges.
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