Rishi Sunak’s budget is “directly” moving the UK away from its climate targets, experts in environmental policy have warned.
While the chancellor emphasised a raft of new green financial policies in his Wednesday address, he has been warned that the impact of schemes such as the “super-reduction”, which encourages business to invest in return for a big tax bill cut, and the fuel duty freeze is steering the nation even further from its much-vaunted environmental goals.
Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace, told HuffPost UK: “This budget has not contributed to the emissions reductions processes we need to be undertaking.
“Directly, as a consequence of this budget, we are further away from meeting our climate targets than closer.”
Green campaigners have attacked the budget, accusing it of failing to tackle the immediacy of the climate crisis. They say it is in contrast to Boris Johnson recently amping up up rhetoric around Britain’s “green recovery” and the UK’s imminent leading role in the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.
Both Parr and Mike Childs, head of policy at Friends of the Earth, pointed to the green homes grant. Some 95% of the scheme (or more than £1bn) was quietly slashed in February and not referenced at all in the budget or the accompanying document.
Parr said: “They basically covered it up. It wasn’t in the speech or the document, that the green homes grant was cut. So the money that was in that pot has been eliminated.
“That’s over £1bn. It’s wrong to say there’s no mechanism for delivering on energy efficiency in the home sector, because there are schemes. But this was the biggest and the most likely to inspire owner-occupiers to do the things they need to do.
“As the Climate Change Committee said, without better efficiency in the home sector – because our housing stock is some of the worst in western Europe – there’s no route to net zero. There’s a big hole now in any kind of strategy or game plan for net zero.”
His comments come as a group of MPs sitting on the influential Public Accounts Committee warn the government has “no plan” for cutting emissions to net zero. A report from the committee said there was no co-ordinated plan, with clear milestones, to achieve the legally binding goal to cut emissions by 100% by 2050.
A separate report from MPs on the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy committee urged the government to spell out how it would measure success at the COP26 summit.
While this was one of the most obvious holes in Sunak’s budget speech, experts are concerned about a raft of other gaps and potential contradictions that could leave the UK trailing ever further behind its own climate aspirations.
Among them are freeports, a key component of the chancellor’s budget speech. While Sunak was careful to emphasise that these would lead to the creation of “green jobs”, the controversial economic zones have been linked in the past to devastating environmental impacts.
In July, the Wildlife and Countryside Link group, the largest environment and wildlife coalition in England, responded to a government consultation about freeports, warning: “Evidence from freeports in other countries demonstrates that lax application processes and regulation, poor enforcement and opaque customs processes have led to serious environmental degradation.”
Childs said he wanted to see the detail of the plans, but added: “Freeports have often been a byword for lowering environmental protections and scrapping, particularly, habitat and wildlife protections.”
Parr, meanwhile, raised glaring concerns about the fact that one of the freeports has been announced at East Midlands Airport, despite the environmental harm caused by flying.
He said: “Having an airport as a freeport just embeds aviation as part of the framework where you don’t actually need to.
“That has to be a high-carbon development, there is currently no alternative.”
The freeze on fuel duty, although perhaps politically sensible during the severe economic downturn caused by Covid-19, is another example of green policies being pushed back, say experts. So too the super-deduction, which – although an encouraging stimulus for the economy – could lead to businesses investing in dirty energy rather than environmentally-friendly machinery.
Parr said: “With no constraints on those [super-deductions] you can invest in fossil fuel burning infrastructure and say ‘yeah, I want a tax break on that’.”
With COP26 fast approaching, Boris Johnson has been keen to push the UK as a “world leader” in climate action, even as ministers in his own cabinet make decisions that undermine green efforts, such as communities secretary, Robert Jenrick’s decision not to challenge the construction of a brand new coal mine in Cumbria.
“We know this has got to be the year of action,” Childs said. “Because we’re hosting the climate talks, because the climate science is so very, very strong, because of the wildfires and droughts and floods around the world.
“I’ve been engaged in environmental campaigning for 30 years and there have been many budgets where I’ve expected to be disappointed. We’ve now got a government, or at least a prime minister, that’s talking big on climate change, and that’s a good thing... but what’s obvious is the yawning gap between what Boris is doing and what Rishi Sunak is doing.
“The gap between what needs to be done to get us on track to meet those 2030 targets has not narrowed at all, or to any significance. We are still way off track.”
The PM has vowed to cut emissions by 68% by 2030 based on 1990 levels – now just nine years away. In that time, Childs explains, entire industries need to be built up to support a green policies, investments that can take years, even decades, to come to fruition.
“There’s future here, if we take the green economy seriously, and there’s no future if we don’t.”
Government spending on tackling climate change, deeply embedded in private investment, is difficult to quantify simply, and comparisons with other countries’ spending can be misleading.
But, as Parr explains, looking at stimulus spending alone can give an idea of how the UK government measures up in terms of its investment in a greener future.
Germany is putting around 40 billion euros (£53.4bn) into a green stimulus scheme, while France’s spending is around 30 billion euros (£25.9bn). An “optimistic’ view of the UK’s spending, Parr says, would put the government’s investment at around £12bn.
With the UK leading negotiations at COP26, policy experts say, the pressure is on to set a shining example of what other nations could be doing to tackle climate change. But right now, experts say, the government – and Sunak’s budget – is far from where it could, and should, be.
“I watched Sunak get up and speak, and on some level it’s heartbreaking,” said Childs. “You know what’s going on in the world, you know the opportunities, you know the case for our economic future is also clearly a green future, but at best he gave the environment lip service.
“That just tells you how embedded the short-termist economists are within the Treasury, and they just don’t look up from their spreadsheets and their ancient textbooks to see how the world has changed.
“There’s a future here, if we take the green economy seriously, and there’s no future if we don’t.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “The UK is leading the world in tackling climate change, cutting emissions by almost 44 per cent since 1990 and doing so faster than any other developed nation in recent years.
“In the budget we built on the prime minister’s Ten Point Plan for a green industrial revolution by encouraging private investment and using the tax system to promote green growth.
“This includes investment in offshore wind port infrastructure, a plan to make the City a leader in carbon offset markets trading, and the first ever UK Infrastructure Bank to invest in public and private projects to drive green growth and create green jobs.”