After another summer of record-breaking temperatures and drought in Europe, affecting people, crops and wildlife, and extreme flooding in Pakistan disrupting the lives of more than 30 million people, international leadership on climate is needed more urgently than ever. Now is the time for ambitious climate action from the UK’s new Prime Minister – but that is not where PM Liz Truss is heading.
The new PM has reaffirmed her commitment to Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050. That’s good. But her environmental track record and initial policy announcements were concerning even before last Friday’s mini-budget As Environment Minister from 2014-2016, Truss oversaw ‘efficiency plans’ which reduced the Environment Agency’s funding by £235 million. According to the National Audit Office this included, between 2014-2015 and 2016-2017, a £24 million cut from a government grant for environmental protection, including surveillance of water companies to prevent the dumping of raw sewage. Official figures show that raw sewage discharge in England and Wales doubled from 14.7 spill events per overflow in 2016 to 29.4 in 2021. According to environmental organisations such as Greenpeace this was a direct result of Truss’s policy. She also cut subsidies for solar farms, one of the cheapest renewables, calling them a ‘blight on the landscape’.
Not surprisingly, one of the first things Liz Truss did as PM was unveil her plan to tackle the cost of living crisis. She announced a cap on energy bills for domestic consumers, which millions will welcome in the short term. But there is a critical catch. There was the option to partly fund that through a further windfall tax, on fossil fuel companies who are making record profits because of the high oil and gas prices. She chose however, to borrow money and recoup it later through taxes, from the public. At a time when we urgently need to get our economies off fossil fuel for the climate’s sake, and in a fair way, this approach does not cap exorbitant profits in the fossil fuel industry or protect consumers from our dependence on fossil fuels.
Another worrying move came in the appointment of the openly climate sceptical Jacob Rees-Mogg as the new Secretary of State in charge of business and energy. Like his new boss, Rees-Mogg favours new oil and gas drilling, increasing fossil fuel production from the North Sea, and fracking. As promised during the Conservative’s leadership contest, PM Truss has lifted green energy levies from bills. Many of the public would understandably welcome cost savings, but the reality is that these are only about 8% of a standard bill and, critically, help pay for renewable energy projects and home insulation. Truss has also lifted the moratorium on shale drilling, with fracking as a cornerstone of her plans. This means ecological damage, further emissions, and it is unlikely that shale gas production can happen in the UK at a scale that would reduce the price of gas. It is not expected to make any difference to the cost of living any time soon. Moreover, fracking at a commercial scale requires large amounts of water, which is in increasingly short supply for both nature and agriculture. All in all, this approach is a tragedy for climate, nature and people in poverty, especially when much better alternatives are available. According to a new report from the University of Oxford, the world could save as much as £10.2 trillion by 2050 by switching to renewable energy. In terms of energy security and the cost of living, investing in fossil fuels just makes things worse.
Then, last Friday, the government outlined the mini budget. It has been widely condemned by environmental groups as ‘an attack on nature’. It confirmed many of our concerns about the new government’s abandonment of effective climate action and introduced new threats to the greenspaces and wildlife. Most destructive is the government’s plan to create 38 ‘investment zones’ across England. In these, planning rules will be relaxed to release more land for commercial use and housing. This will give developers almost unfettered licence to build whatever nature is present and despite the huge environmental, human and climate benefits of investing in nature. The RSPB said, “make no mistake, we are angry”.
One small silver lining came in the lifting of the moratorium on onshore wind – the cheapest source of renewable energy. But it’s a small positive in the context of the very serious threats to climate and nature contained in the wider budget.
During the first part of this century, the UK developed a deserved reputation for being bold and forward-looking in response to climate change, for example bringing in the world’s first Climate Act in 2008. We were regarded as international climate leaders. Last year we hosted COP26, the UN climate negotiations, in Glasgow and we retain the Presidency until the next COP in Egypt in November. Sadly the new government’s policies lead us in precisely the opposite direction that we committed to in the Glasgow Climate Pact which agreed the need to wind down fossil fuels. It is a poor example to the rest of the world and gives no hope to a younger generation desperate for action to address climate change and nature loss. Unless there is a change of heart in our new government, it will spell a shocking end to the UK’s international climate leadership.
We have to hope, pray, and speak up for a change of heart. One way is to get behind the recently launched Warm this Winter campaign. This calls on the government for effective support for those being pushed into fuel poverty, for home upgrades and insulation, and the expansion of renewable energy. Find out more at warmthiswinter.org.uk and sign up to Wild Christian for regular updates on the campaigns we support.
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