Laying out his 10-point, £12 billion plan for Britain’s “green industrial revolution” in the Financial Times, Boris Johnson described a future filled with electric cars, carbon capture and storage technology, wind turbines and hydrogen-powered ships.
This vision is heavy on the “industrial” and light on the “green”. What green there is may be undermined by other major sources of carbon emissions and environmental degradation in the UK, which are left unaddressed in the plan.
Public transport will run on clean fuel, new cycle lanes will be built, and more low-traffic neighbourhoods will be established. But if people will really be encouraged out of their cars, then a logical next step would be for the government to cancel its massive £27 billion road-building programme and direct the money somewhere more useful.
A report by environmental consultancy Transport for Quality of Life found that the 4,000 miles of new roads that are supposed to be built in the next five years will release 20 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. This is incompatible with the government’s climate targets.
How exactly all that extra tarmac will impact the tree-planting and rewilding promised in Johnson’s green plan is yet to be explained. Roads impact wildlife and ecosystems in all sorts of ways, including animals killed by cars, light, air, and noise pollution, physical barriers to movement, and habitat fragmentation.
Johnson has pledged 30,000 hectares of reforested land and 30,000 football pitches’ worth of rewilded land, but the Conservative government has a poor track-record of protecting the wildlife and natural spaces we already have. What guarantee is there that newly created habitats, let alone existing ones, won’t later be sacrificed at the altar of the electric car?
It will also cost a lot more money than the £80 million Johnson has pledged to help improve and expand Britain’s green spaces. The Wildlife Trusts are calling for £1 billion a year to help tackle species decline and restore habitats. Yet, it is doubtful whether the government would stump up more, given that it has cut the funding of its own environment body, Natural England, to the point that critical work to protect endangered species can’t be effectively carried out.
Sufficient investment in nature would do a lot to reduce the UK’s emissions so that we wouldn’t need to rely so much on carbon capture storage technology. Rewilding Britain estimates that with £1.9 billion to support the restoration and protection of native woodland, peatbogs, heaths, and species-rich grasslands over a total of 6 million hectares, 47 million tonnes of CO2 could be sequestered each year. The government claims to recognise the importance of such nature-based solutions, but doesn’t seem to recognise the scale at which it is needed.
Agriculture is another gap in the green plan. As advocacy group Sustain points out, Johnson makes no mention of tackling emissions from food production, which has a huge greenhouse gas footprint.
One of Sustain’s suggestions for how the government could address this issue is investment in local areas “via councils, to help them deliver solutions that benefit their communities including freeing up land for small-scale horticulture.”
If it understood the urgency of the climate crisis, the government would also have to acknowledge the necessity of reducing meat consumption and introduce measures to help people move towards more plant-based diets, along with a plan to phase out intensive livestock farming. This would have the added bonus of helping us reduce the risk of a pandemic originating in our own back garden and save millions of animals from a life of suffering.
The omission of agriculture is particularly strange given that only last week, the government’s Agricultural Bill became law, ensuring that in future farmers will be paid for delivering “public goods” such as clean air and wildlife habitat. As it stands, Johnson’s green plan seems like a missed opportunity to build on that important change and encourage a more fundamental shift in how the country produces its food.
If the UK is going to do its part on climate and bring our embattled wildlife back from the brink, the prime minister will need to get better at connecting the dots and stop seeing objects made of metal and concrete as the primary way to go green.
Claire Hamlett is a freelance writer covering animals, climate, and the environment.