“Bounce back greener”, the “green recovery”, a government that will “lead that green industrial revolution”.
Boris Johnson’s verdant rhetoric in recent weeks – particularly in the wake of Covid-19 – certainly paints a picture of better days to come, with promises to prioritise climate change and to make the UK “a world leader in low-cost clean power generation”.
But how serious is he?
Campaigners point to a dire track record that has already plundered the environment more than saved it – and highlight “greenwash” legislation on the horizon.
“His government has voted down crucial amendments that would have tackled overfishing and protected our food standards from dodgy trade deals,” Greenpeace’s policy director Dr Doug Parr told HuffPost UK.
“For all the high-flown rhetoric about the green recovery, the UK government has spent 10 times less on it than France, and even less compared to Germany.
“The prime minister said that climate action should not become a victim of Covid but, for now, it looks like that’s exactly where we are.”
Here’s what we know about how the government is shaping up so far.
The environment bill, a key piece of post-Brexit legislation described as “a truly landmark piece of legislation” by then environment secretary Theresa Villiers, has now not been seen in parliament for more than 200 days.
Its passage was paused in March as the pandemic set in, but despite other government business getting back underway and the clock ticking, the bill is nowhere to be seen.
The current government has talked a big game about its green ambitions – with the bill promising reform in air pollution, waste and resource efficiency, water management, and chemical controls.
It’s the first significant piece of environmental legislation for 20 years and would set the entire framework for how the UK combats climate change, from legal targets to a new governance system in the absence of the EU.
Friends of the Earth (FoE) campaigner Kierra Box described the environmental protection proposed by the government as a “clear weakening” from the structures that were in place under the EU.
Box added that even the proposed Office of Environmental Protection (OEP), designed to replace the European Courts after Brexit, would have weaker powers than the EU.
But more to the point, the OEP doesn’t exist at all until the bill is passed. If it still hasn’t by January 1, 2021 – the date the UK is fully severed from EU laws after Brexit – British citizens will have no way to appeal if the government breaks environmental law.
Earlier this year HuffPost UK and Unearthed revealed there were 11 environmental protection cases that could end up in a “dead end” if they are not taken up by a new UK independent regulator after departure from the EU.
Brexit has put the UK’s fishing industry back at the top of the agenda, with Boris Johnson warned recently by Brexit Party MEPs to “take back control” of British waters.
The PM has previously insisted to the EU that UK waters will be “first and foremost for British boats”, while the Fisheries Bill – again described as “landmark” legislation – will set rules for the industry for years to come.
According to a July press release, issued by the government to mark its introduction to parliament, the new bill will “ensure that fish stocks, and the marine environment, are better protected for future generations”.
But key sustainability policies have already been stripped from the legislation. In mid-September the House of Commons removed an amendment from the bill that would have required larger vessels fishing in UK waters to carry Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) systems with cameras.
Language around sustainability, designed in the House of Lords before the bill entered parliament in order to deter decisions that could lead to overfishing, was also stripped out following a Commons vote earlier in September.
Greenpeace has highlighted the government’s refusal to include legislation on a “maximum sustainable yield” – which would dictate a sustainable quota for the fishing industry to stick to in order to prevent over-fishing – and a failure to reallocate existing fishing quotas to low-impact fishers.
In a release on the Marine Conservation Society’s website, Sam Stone, head of fisheries and aquaculture at the organisation, described the shift away from sustainable policies in the bill as a “huge blow”.
“We are increasingly concerned that this government is not really interested in moving fisheries management away from the status quo,” he added.
The government insists sustainability is at the heart of its fishing policies – with a “blue belt” scheme, which sets out specifically protected waters, introduced in 2017.
Any vessel granted a licence post-Brexit to fish in British waters will need to meet UK sustainability standards – but the specifics of this have not yet been set out.
As with the environmental and fisheries bills, agriculture is facing a huge overhaul in the wake of Brexit, with the government scrambling to introduce new legislation ahead of January 1, 2021.
Chlorinated chicken and hormone-feed beef have become headline fixtures in media coverage of the bill, but climate campaigners are worried environmental standards will drop alongside food regulations.
The UK’s agriculture industry pre-Brexit has followed the EU principle of cross-compliance under the common agricultural policy (CAP), which basically means farmers have to follow basic public, plant, and animal health and welfare rules.
An important aspect of CAP is that it financially rewards environmentally friendly farming – with €58.82bn (£53.4bn) given to European farmers in 2018. When the UK leaves the EU for good at the end of 2020, it will no longer be party to this support.
The government wants to get rid of these direct payments altogether, phasing them out over the course of seven years.
But FoE has warned that farmers with less stringent environmental rules could end up being rewarded in the interim.
That’s because the government has proposed an Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme as part of the new agricultural policy – through which farmers are paid for providing “public goods” such as cleaner air and water, though this is still in development.
Box said: “The fact that the government has opted for an interim scheme which would reward farmers for effectively obeying the law feels very much like a step back even from cross compliance under CAP.
“We had many problems with cross compliance under CAP, but paying farmers for not even doing simple things like maintaining hedgerows or rotating crops seems like a backward step.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has repeatedly missed the targets set out by the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), with no improvement – and a probable decline – in England’s river quality since 2016.
The FoE’s Box explained that ministers had, in recent years, pointed to the WFD as an example of an outdated, unsuitable framework that the UK could improve upon after Brexit.
But it looks likely that the changes in the way we measure water quality in the wake of Brexit won’t be for the better.
Back in August it emerged that, instead of introducing more stringent quality guidelines that make water conditions safer both for wildlife and for people wild swimming, for example, the head of the Environment Agency actually supported weakening the rules.
In a speech to an audience of business leaders, Sir James Bevan said he wanted to get rid of the EU’s “one out, all out” rule in England. Currently, rivers have to meet four stringent quality tests – without the complete set they can’t be graded as good (just 14% of the UK’s rivers currently meet this standard).
If the UK did take this path, and only had to meet one test for each river, the quality of its waterways would artificially rocket overnight.
There’s evidence, FoE says, that this way of thinking is making its way into post-Brexit government policy, with the government showing an “obvious intent to regress”.
This is evident in the disparity between the EU and UK’s draft agreement texts, in which the EU specifically sets out what is covered by social and environmental standards – including the aquatic environment. The UK text details no such specifics.
Bevan also said in his speech: “If changing the law will allow us to regulate better and achieve higher environmental standards, we should always be open to that” – with ministers claiming that post-Brexit legislation will be better.
But Box says: “If you look at what the EU is proposing in the future relationship text they’re clearly worried it [water quality standards] won’t be better. It will be different, but it will be weaker, which is why water comes up within that text proposal.”
Back in the summer the government released a consultation on sweeping planning reforms, which would speed up the planning application process so developers could supposedly get to work creating new homes much more quickly.
Bizarrely, in July, Boris Johnson held up newts as a key reason for the slow pace of housebuilding, claiming the process of counting the species “a massive drag on the prosperity of this country”, with little evidence. Craig Bennett, head of the Wildlife Trusts, told the BBC that the PM’s speech in question was a work of “pure fiction”.
In January 2020 the government committed to “biodiversity net gain”, which means new developments will be required to enhance biodiversity and create new green spaces. But this is part of the environment bill, which has not yet been passed by parliament.
In February 2020 the government also published a consultation on freeports –zones designated by leaders as areas with little or no tax to stimulate economic activity. Johnson said he wanted to open 10 new locations as part of the UK’s post-Brexit trade strategy – but doing so could obliterate environmental targets.
A consultation response by Wildlife and Countryside link, England’s largest environment and wildlife coalition, describes freeports as posing a “serious environmental risk”.
The report adds: “Previous and existing examples of freeports from around the world have been associated with reduced environmental standards and a ‘race to the bottom’.
“Freeports (or ‘special economic zones’) in a number of countries, including China, Mexico and Vietnam, have faced serious environmental degradation, including water, air and land pollution as well as huge industrial waste.”
Box said: “We understand the fact that the government seem to be rushing through a number of freeports, which have lesser planning conditions – the details of which we do yet not know.
“Coupled with Boris Johnson’s previous statements around the ‘terrible’ nature of newts and how they stand in the way of effective development, and more recent comments around how free ports will ensure that environmental considerations don’t hinder effective trade, [this signals] a backwards move in terms of planning, both in local nature networks and access to biodiversity which the environment bill is meant to be promoting.”
Deposit return scheme
The broadcast of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II in 2017 inspired much of the nation – and many around the globe – to help reduce plastics.
From bamboo straws to beeswax wrappers, millions of people were buying into low-waste options to reduce their plastic consumption. That is, before Covid-19 created a brand new demand for disposable products.
The government has taken recent action on single-use plastics, with straws, cotton buds and drinks stirrers all banned from October 1. While the move has been welcomed by many, environmental campaigners say there is still more the leaders could have done – and much more quickly.
Greenpeace has highlighted the “failure” of government to implement a deposit return scheme (DRS), where items such as plastic bottles are sold with at a slightly increased price to cover a deposit. Once the product is used, the bottles could then be return to recycling machines – for example in supermarkets – and the deposit returned to the customer. The system doesn’t just include plastic – cardboard, glass and aluminium have all been recycled through the schemes.
A number of countries across Europe already have this system, including Germany which has been using it since 2003, and Norway, which has had the policy in place since 1996. Despite almost a quarter of a century of use elsewhere, the UK is still far from implementing its own system.
That’s not to say the idea hasn’t already been around for years in Westminster. Back in 2018 the government published its Resources and Waste Strategy, which included a DRS, with a first consultation held in 2019. A second consultation was planned for early 2020, but this has been pushed back to an unconfirmed date in 2021.
In 2019 the government said it was hoping to have the scheme in place by 2023 – already five years after it published the strategy – but with the consultation pushed back there’s been no update on when we could finally see the scheme in the UK.
Green recovery spending
Britain is one of the leading voices in the global call to “build back better” as part of the green recovery from Covid-19 – with the aim of cutting Co2 emissions while reinvigorating the economy.
Johnson conceives of the UK as a world-leading nation when it comes to environmental policy, and has repeatedly described how much investment the UK is supposedly ploughing into the “green recovery”.
The government says it is setting out billions in funding for green energy, including £6bn of investment going into bringing as many houses as possible up to EPC C standard by 2035, and £2bn into the “Green Homes Grant” scheme.
In terms of specific funding set out by the government, “green recovery” funds amount to £350m. They explicitly target cutting emissions in heavy industry, construction and transport, as a means to drive economic recovery from coronavirus.
But compared with other nations, the spending doesn’t match the sentiment, environmental policy experts say.
Greenpeace has described the UK’s so-called green recovery spending as “weak”.
France has so far spent €30bn (£27.3bn) on its green recovery, while Germany’s efforts total €40bn (£36.4bn).
In recent years, FoE’s team of legal experts have been analysing – and at times intervening in – examples of Statutory Instruments (a form of government legislation) that the government had introduced, or was planning to introduce, post-Brexit that made regulations “weaker or inoperable”.
One example is an SI that removed the current EU lists of banned products and maximum residue limits for veterinary medicine used in food-producing animals – and instead committed the government to “an administrative process in the future”, which wouldn’t be made part of the legislation.
Box said: ”The government is of the view that this is akin to maintaining environmental protections as they promised, and they maintain that when they go through this administrative process they will improve these provisions.
“However, from our perspective, it is not maintaining guidance and bans on residue limits and on dangerous chemicals to simply delete those lists and then reestablish them again at a later date.
“In terms of scrutiny and transparency and the democratic process in the future it seems to give a lot more potential for regression than the EU system did.”
So, can the UK really call itself a world leader?
The UK will host the world’s biggest climate conference – the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26 – in November 2021, and Johnson’s government is keen to portray itself as a leader in the field.
Friends of the Earth campaigner Box described the UK as an “aspirate leader” – but not yet a world leader in reality.
“We need to look at what the US, the EU, what other large economies around the world are doing,” she said.
“We need to actually look at what it would mean to be better than them, to lead them, and I think that means we need to get our own house in order in terms of domestic environmental policy.
“Our concern is that this government are very big on words and tight on action, quick to move on deregulation and loopholes, slow to move on actual new, brave thinking and actual leadership.”
In reference to the above points raised by HuffPost UK, a Defra spokesperson said: “It is imperative we build back both better and greener from the coronavirus pandemic – with a renewed and enhanced focus on protecting the environment, reducing emissions and bolstering our resilience to climate change.
“Our £40m green recovery challenge fund will bring forward funding to help charities and environmental organisations start work on projects across England to restore nature and tackle climate change.”