Our precious environment deserves time and attention
I don’t see anything in the proposed Environment Bill that would provide an effective check on ministers making bad decisions. Peers will need to really kick up a fuss to give the Bill some legal teeth.
Boris Johnson supposedly loves the environment so much he has put the Environment Bill centre stage during the last three Queen’s Speeches. But then, predictably, done absolutely nothing.
We were originally promised the Environment Bill ahead of the Brexit departure date; it was due to contain a lot of the safeguards the government didn’t want us to push for in all the other legislation the government has rammed through: the Farming Bill; the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade Bill. Yet the Environment Bill has now been bumped to the back of the queue as the government has created new laws at breakneck speed to give legal immunity for spy cops and police agents, while doing nothing to improve our environment, nor recognise animal sentience.
For those still clinging to the government rhetoric of a green Brexit, take it from me (I voted Leave), it will never happen under this government. There is a reason why ministers have repeatedly refused to enshrine in law a commitment that future rules will be no weaker than those which applied when the UK was an EU member state. The government won’t leave the UK’s environment in better shape than they found it, because it’s not that important to them.
The pandemic has taught us is that being out in nature … is good for us
Legally binding commitments on key areas of pollution, nature restoration, waste and resource use have been put off to 2037, which lets this government off the hook for a lot of stupid decisions it is currently making. Why are we still building incinerators that pump out greenhouse gases by burning plastic? Why are we still building houses that must be retrofitted within the next decade to make them carbon neutral, or even carbon positive? Why is the government still planning new roads and subsidising airports?
It’s no surprise that the proposed new environmental watchdog will lack teeth, according to a report by Greener UK, a coalition of 12 campaigning groups.
To see what the real priorities are, we must always “follow the money,” so it’s no surprise that newly-published environmental principles, supposed to prevent branches of government acting in ways that could harm the environment, will not apply to the Treasury.
Our government is due to host COP26 In November, but for every tiny step forward they take on climate change, they also take a bigger step back. Their Green Homes scheme has collapsed and left lots of small traders in the lurch, just as they did when they prematurely cut back on the renewable energy grants and around 10,000 lost their jobs.
Efforts on climate adaptation are inadequate for the coming crisis. They restore budgets for flood protection but give special treatment to support grouse shooting and moorland clearance which lead to rainwater run-off and flooding. The government have promised to plant trees faster, but they have pushed HS2 through swathes of ancient woodlands and other precious environmental sites. They are steaming ahead with building nuclear power stations on fragile coastlands, despite the escalating evidence that Greenland’s glacier is heading for total meltdown and seven metres needs to be added to our estimates of sea level rises.
I don’t see anything in the proposed Environment Bill that would provide an effective check on ministers making bad decisions, nor even inducing them to make good ones. It will take a lot of work in the Lords to introduce the safeguards and world class minimum standards that are needed. Peers will need to really kick up a fuss to give the Environment Bill some legal teeth, so that the worthy principles actually mean something when big decisions are being made.
Something the pandemic has taught us is that being out in nature, with trees, flowers, streams and hedges, is good for us. So let’s hope we peers are allowed the time to assess the Environment Bill properly. The environment, and our national wellbeing, deserve that kind of effort and attention.
Baroness Jones is a Green Party member of the House of Lords.