Defra lagging behind in developing net-zero policies, documents reveal

The Government department responsible for the environment is lagging far behind in developing policies that would steer the UK to becoming net zero, according to leaked documents given to the Observer.

Cabinet ministers have been warned they face potential court action for failing to deliver on climate pledges, the Sunday newspaper said.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is performing worse than any other Government department by being 24% behind its official target.

Last year, during one of the UK’s worst heatwaves ever recorded, a High Court judge ruled that the Government had breached its obligations under the Climate Change Act because its net-zero strategy left a 5% shortfall in carbon emissions.

Greg Hands, who was business secretary when the strategy was agreed, was obliged to take into account the “quantitative” effects of the individual policies and the “qualitative analysis” of which policies were relied upon and why.

The Government has until the end of March to revise its net-zero strategy but the leaked documents reveal that it may be struggling to do so.

A spokesperson for Defra said the department “cannot comment on potential leaks”.

A Net Zero Growth Plan is expected within the next month, with various Whitehall departments in the final stages of reviewing their policies.

Green groups believe Environment Secretary Therese Coffey is nervous about provoking any further upset from farmers, according to the Observer.

National Farmers’ Union Conference
NFU president Minette Batters, right, said the Government must address production problems, bring down inflation and reduce the UK’s carbon emissions (Jacob King/PA)

Rural votes are key for Conservative election victories but a YouGov poll in October suggested that traditional support may be slipping – it recorded the party as being 13 points behind Labour.

Many farmers are angry at the Government over the application of post-Brexit subsidies, labour shortages and the possibility of new trade deals allowing cheaper, lower-standard food into the country from abroad.

At the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) conference in February, Ms Coffey was booed amid a testy question and answer session in which she hurried up the delegates, saying she was going to miss her train.

She denied there had been a market failure when told that a billion fewer eggs had been produced in 2022 than in 2021.

The NFU’s president, Minette Batters, said “the clock is ticking” for the Government to address production issues, tackle inflation and reduce emissions.

She said at the time: “It has been incredibly hard getting government to back up its rhetoric with concrete actions.

“The time is nearly up for government to demonstrate its commitment to food and farming in our great country, not just by saying they support us, but by showing us they do.

“I won’t let the opposition off the hook either, I believe the rural vote will be crucial in the next election.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer made his pitch to farmers at the conference by saying “food security is national security” and by pledging his party to buy more locally produced food if he takes office.