We dive into the Conservative party environment policy to see what the next five years has in store for British people and the planet while BoJo is ‘Getting Brexit Done.’
The next five to ten years is pivotal for humanity. The science overwhelmingly tells us this is our last chance to reverse some of the damage we’ve done to our planet. And in the UK, it’s up to a new government obsessed with leaving the EU to deliver. No pressure. So, what do the next five years of Conservative government mean for our environment?
How will Brexit affect environmental policies?
Now that we’re definitely progressing with an EU-exit on the 31st January, what does Prime Minister Johnson’s winning matra ‘Getting Brexit Done’ mean for the planet? Well, that won’t be clear for quite some time.
Former PM Theresa May’s Brexit deal made certain provisions to ensure that, on severance from EU regulations, our environment would be adequately protected. May had made efforts to ensure that there would be no regression in environment policy, with detailed policies in 11 key areas. A dedicated and independent enforcement body was also appointed to ensure this, as well as requirements for Northern Ireland to continue implementing EU environmental laws. There was also an agreement to set key environment policy jointly with an EU-UK committee.
With Johnson’s deal, most of these crucial protections have been dropped. As the UK will not be included in EU Customs rules, our alignment with their environmental protections will also be non-compulsory. The manifesto does state that the new Environment Bill will ensure the government ‘will protect and restore our natural environment after leaving the EU’, but no plans or commitments are outlined.
In his letter to President of the European Council Donald Tusk, Johnson states: ‘Although we remain committed to world-class environmental, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.’
Conservative environmental priorities
The new government has promised to aim for net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a world-leading target, although many argue is too little too late. The environment, however, is not listed in the Conservative Party Manifesto as a top priority. In fact, you have to get to page 43 before any significant mention of green policies is made, and page 55 before the new government’s environment policy is explored in full.
On conservation, the government has pledged to protect our green belt, prioritising ‘brownfield development’ (building on sites previously used by industry or built on, rather than on green fields). They will also support more environmental ways of building new homes, though what percentage of their proposed 1 million new-builds will be green isn’t specific. They also plan to incentivise more environmentally friendly forms of agriculture and sustainable fishing once we have left the EU. But there’s a lot of conservation and not a lot of climate going on under the surface.
In order to achieve net zero by 2050, the government will have to completely eradicate the use of fossil-fuelled vehicles in the country (the current 2040 target won’t achieve this). It will also mean switching every home in the UK to green energy – requiring further investment in green energy, i.e. floating wind farms. There is no mention of solar power in the manifesto. Though the Tory net zero pledge sounds convincing, the current environment policy will not get us there.
Transport and dirty energy
Though they promise to transition away from fossil fuel powered cars, there is no mention of making electric vehicles more affordable for the consumer. Although, the Tories are planning to invest in massive updates to our railways and to build more new high-speed connections (which went well last time). Oh, and cycle networks. So, if all else fails, at least we’ll all have impressive calf muscles.
In a significant move, though, Prime Minister Johnson’s government will make it very difficult for further fracking to take place. This is a huge win for protesters who fought for years to make sure the practice was stopped.
The manifesto says: ‘We placed a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect […] We will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely.’ It’s a shame they had to sully this progress with the announcement of a new deep coal mine in Cumbria, though.
Tackling plastic pollution
As for the plastic pollution crisis, much is made of renewed efforts to ensure recycling is encouraged. The Tories want to process our rubbish internally or only export it to countries with effective recycling methods. This is opposed to simply dumping it in poor South East Asian countries, as is the current practice throughout the West.
The Tories propose a Scandi-style recycling incentive scheme, seeing levies imposed on producers of non-recyclable plastic packaging. They also want to shift the responsibility of waste onto producers rather than consumers. These are all good noises, and reflect public attitudes towards consumption.
But we know we can’t recycle our way out of the mess we’re in – only 8% of the world’s plastic has ever been recycled as there just isn’t the market for it. So, shouting about recycling incentives when a huge percentage of UK ‘recycling’ is actually incinerated won’t cut it.
Investing in the environment
Let’s talk numbers. Here’s what the Conservative party has pledged to invest in the environment, which they name as a priority in their uncosted budget (despite the climate being a mere footnote in their manifesto):
- £9.2 billion to improve the energy efficiency of homes, hospitals and schools
- £4 billion in new flood defences
- £800 million to build ‘the first fully deployed carbon capture storage cluster by the mid-2020s’
- £640 million for a new Nature for Climate fund (primarily promising to plant 40 million trees)
- £500 million to help carbon heavy industry transition to greener techniques
- £500 million Blue Planet fund to protect our oceans from plastic pollution
Outside of their budget, there’s some evidence they’ll be promoting divestment or impact investing. Guy Opperman, the Minister for Pensions and Financial Inclusion, has encouraged pension fund Trustees to fire investment managers who do not act on climate change.
Opperman criticised the ‘lack of action some investment managers have taken on issues like climate change’ and made a statement highlighting the crucial role pension funds have in tackling climate change. The Conservatives also have plans to reinstate the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
Drop in the ocean
These figures may sound impressive, but it’s important to put them into perspective. The combined total of all of the measures – £15.6 billion – is less than a third of the £57 billion budget for the on-off High Speed 2 rail project, for example. It is also only £6.8 billion more that the government spent on hosting the Olympic games in 2012. In a ranking of party environmental policies during the general election campaign, Friends of the Earth also ranked the Tories in last place (Labour came out on top).
A manifesto is not a binding document, and at best, any party’s election promises should be taken with a pinch of salt. At worst, though, these lukewarm promises mask a dangerous plan to pull the wool over our eyes during a global climate emergency.
We can only hope this government will outperform its promises and give in to growing public pressure to take action on climate change. The lesson we need to learn from the disastrous effects of the Conservative government’s previous years of climate negligence is this: If the government won’t do it, we’ll do it for them.