Seven pressing green questions that Prime Minister Liz Truss needs to address
Liz Truss will step into number 10 on Tuesday as the UK’s latest Prime Minister and will be tasked with immediately introducing measures to combat the energy crisis while also dealing with a long list of green policy priorities before the end of the year.
Truss used her speech on Monday (5 September) to state that the Government would set to work immediately to combat the energy crisis.
Truss gave a very short acceptance speech at the announcement, with a more detailed speech expected to happen later in the week after she is formally appointed into the position of Prime Minister. Truss did say that she would “deliver” on long-term energy security and deal with the energy crisis.
So as the curtain comes down on Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister (and you can read whether he was a climate leader or laggard here) it is clear that Truss and her Cabinet (which will be announced on Tuesday, will have a lot of pressing issues to address to ensure the UK meets its climate and environmental commitments.
1) Outline steps to alleviate the energy crisis
At the end of August, regulator Ofgem raised the energy price cap, pushing the average household energy gas and electricity bills to more than £3,500 annually, prompting fresh calls for urgent policy intervention.
The new price cap will come into force in October and run through to the end of December, leaving many households worried as to how they will afford to pay their bills. The new cap will affect 24 million households – about 85% of the population. Want to know how the energy price rises could impact businesses? Click here.
It is important to state that while this has been branded an energy cost crisis, the key contributor to rising costs is gas. Analysis from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) has found that is likely to add £2,300 to the average costs increase to date and could surpass £3,000 next year – around 95% of the total costs.
Liz Truss has promised to unveil plans to deal with the energy crisis within her first seven days as Prime Minister.
Truss, who was named as the new Prime Minister on Monday, told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that she would “act immediately” to help with bills. However, little detail on how this would be achieved has been provided.
Worryingly, Truss appears to favour fracking and gas exploration in order to combat the issue.
Truss has been very pro-fossil-fuel and largely anti-renewables during her campaign, particularly solar. Truss, who worked for Shell between 1996 and 2000, has indicated that she is against the current windfall tax on oil and gas majors and stated that she would allow fracking in areas where local communities support it. She has also made headlines this week with talk of approving more than 100 new oil and gas licenses in the North Sea – a proposal slammed by climate scientists.
During the leadership campaign, Truss has been vocal of her displeasure around solar farms, labelling them as “depressing sights” and “paraphernalia”. However, green groups have been quick to criticise these claims.
The REA, for example, notes that solar farms are planned and built in conjunction with crops and livestock and often provide co-benefits. Indeed, the independent National Food Strategy Review concluded that solar projects do not present a risk to the UK’s food security.
With many households and businesses wondering how they’ll keep the lights on this winter, energy security is the big issue facing Truss.
2) Set out clear stances on renewables and climate-friendly projects
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 in July, for example, 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 recently, while an expected decision as to whether a new coal mine is approved in Cumbria has been delayed until November.
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.
3) Set out a Food Strategy that is fit for purpose
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.
Indeed, campaign group Feedback last week launched a legal challenge to the UK Government’s Food Strategy White Paper, arguing that measures included are not sufficient to align the food sector with legally binding climate targets.
Feedback’s legal challenge to the White Paper is grounded in the argument that measures included are not sufficient to deliver emissions reductions consistent with the UK’s legally binding 2050 net-zero target an interim carbon budgets.
Like the Net-Zero Strategy, which was ruled to be unlawful following legal challenges from ClientEarth and Friends of the Earth, the White Paper contains no new time-bound, numerical targets for reducing emissions in the agriculture sector.
4) Respond to the many court cases against green legislation (such as the latest water measures)
The UK Government has rolled out a plethora of new green frameworks in relation to energy, transport, emissions and the environment. While these have been broadly welcomed as a step in the right direction, many green groups have questioned the validity and ambitions of these strategies, so much so that many have been taken to court on climate grounds.
The most recent example is the case against the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced on 26 August what it claimed to be the “toughest ever” requirements for water companies to restrict and eventually end the practice of discharging untreated water.
Charity WildFish believes this is not true and has issued a letter before action, the first step in a potential judicial review. The letter urges Defra to withdraw the plan and states that court action will be considered if the withdrawal does not happen.
Truss and her team may well be spending much of 2023 (if a snap election doesn’t oust them) beefing up existing climate policies.
5) 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. However, 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.
6) 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 has recently 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 activists 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.
7) 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.
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