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What’s behind the UK government’s recent flurry of environmental policy?

What’s behind the UK government’s recent flurry of environmental policy?

Alongside dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and the looming deadline for a Brexit deal, there’s been an unusual flurry of environmental policy coming out of the Conservative government in recent weeks.

Boris Johnson is a politician with a keen interest in history, and by all accounts by what historians will make of him. At first it was thought that Brexit would define his legacy, then the coronavirus pandemic took hold, and it appears that the environment and climate change issues are front and centre for the time being.

2021 is a pivotal year for ‘Global Britain’, with the UK hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (after it was delayed by a year) and holding the G7 Presidency, and as a result the UK government has come under pressure to show leadership amongst the global community and set ambitious targets in environmental and climate change policy. So what are they planning to do and is it achievable?



The lead off announcement came at the UN Summit on Biodiversity in September, when the Prime Minister pledged to protect 30% of the UK’s land by 2030. On face value this is an impressive commitment and consistent with the ambition of the Global Ocean Alliance (created by the UK government) to protect 30% of the marine environment by 2030.

However if you dig a little deeper you find that the UK government already considers 26% of the UK ‘protected’ through national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, and other protected areas. But many of these areas are not given over to nature in a way that will protect biodiversity. As an example, the Cotswolds AONB (the largest in England, Wales and Northern Ireland) is 86% agricultural land and only 10% woodland.

Unfortunately it’s also not clear whether protecting 30% of land would be enough, even if it was done properly. Edward O. Wilson, one of the world’s leading experts on biodiversity, has called for half of the land and sea to be protected to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity. Separately, Rewilding Britain has called for a quarter of the UK to be rewilded, arguing “wildlife would benefit, farmers would not lose money and food production need not fall”.


Path to Sustainable Farming

Something that might help protect biodiversity is the recently announced Path to Sustainable Farming, which according to the government is a “roadmap to a fairer, better farming system”.

Rather than simply being paid for owning or renting land, as is the case currently, farmers in England will be rewarded for restoring wild habitats, creating new woodlands, restoring peatlands and improving soil health.

The goal of the plan is that farmers will be producing food sustainably and without subsidies within seven years.

The new policy is the biggest shake-up of farming in 50 years and its execution will be the key to its success, but we can draw hope from places like Knepp Estate, which has thrived since moving away from modern intensive farming to a rewilding approach.


Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution

The centrepiece of the UK government’s charm offensive came in mid-November, with the release of ‘The Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution’. In an accompanying article in the Financial Times, Boris Johnson argued “now is the time to plan for a green recovery with high-skilled jobs that give people the satisfaction of knowing they are helping to make the country cleaner, greener and more beautiful.”

According the government press release, the plan comprises the following:

  • Offshore wind: Producing enough offshore wind to power every home, quadrupling how much we produce to 40GW by 2030, supporting up to 60,000 jobs.
  • Hydrogen: Working with industry aiming to generate 5GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 for industry, transport, power and homes, and aiming to develop the first town heated entirely by hydrogen by the end of the decade.
  • Nuclear: Advancing nuclear as a clean energy source, across large scale nuclear and developing the next generation of small and advanced reactors, which could support 10,000 jobs.
  • Electric vehicles: Backing our world-leading car manufacturing bases including in the West Midlands, North East and North Wales to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, and transforming our national infrastructure to better support electric vehicles.
  • Public transport, cycling and walking: Making cycling and walking more attractive ways to travel and investing in zero-emission public transport of the future.
  • Jet Zero and greener maritime: Supporting difficult-to-decarbonise industries to become greener through research projects for zero-emission planes and ships.
  • Homes and public buildings: Making our homes, schools and hospitals greener, warmer and more energy efficient, whilst creating 50,000 jobs by 2030, and a target to install 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028.
  • Carbon capture: Becoming a world-leader in technology to capture and store harmful emissions away from the atmosphere, with a target to remove 10MT of carbon dioxide by 2030, equivalent to all emissions of the industrial Humber today.
  • Nature: Protecting and restoring our natural environment, planting 30,000 hectares of trees every year, whilst creating and retaining thousands of jobs.
  • Innovation and finance: Developing the cutting-edge technologies needed to reach these new energy ambitions and make the City of London the global centre of green finance.

It is also asserted that the plan will invest £12 billion to create and support up to 250,000 British jobs and accelerate the UK towards its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The ambition of the plan is noble but we need to see the detail of how it will be implemented. There are concerns that the high initial cost of nuclear power means new plants won’t be built and there is little incentive for the aviation and shipping sectors to become greener given they are not included in carbon emission targets.

The sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans will be banned from 2030 as part of the switch to electric automobiles, but it is unclear whether cash-strapped local authorities are willing to pay for the charging infrastructure needed for those vehicles. 


New carbon emissions reduction target

Prior to Boris Johnson’s premiership the UK Parliament had declared a climate emergency and the government had committed to a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050, reduction under the Paris Agreement.

Yesterday the government upped the stakes by committing to a 68 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) and pointing to the ten point plan as the roadmap to get there.

The four measures above read as an ambitious set of policies for the Boris Johnson-led Conservative government, who are no doubt very conscious of their role as COP 26 hosts and expectations upon them to set the tone for other countries and they appear to have taken that on board. However there are also tensions between No 10 and the Treasury which may impact how much money is made available to implement these policies and already the National Audit Office has said the UK is not on track to hit government targets for 2023-2027 and 2028-2032..

With new climate pledges from major emitters like China and the election of Joe Biden as US President there is cautious optimism that meaningful progress can be made in limiting global warming to around 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. However, we are fast running out of time and words are no longer enough. As George Monbiot puts it, “[i]t’s the hope I can’t stand. Every few years, governments gather to make solemn promises about the action they will take to defend the living world, then break them before the ink is dry.” This time needs to be different.


Cover photo by James Newcombe on Unsplash

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