Are the Tories' green commitments all talk and little action?

Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent
Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty

Just after calling the general election, Boris Johnson’s government made two almost simultaneous policy announcements that encapsulated the longstanding contradictions of environmental policy over the past decade.

His decision to announce a moratorium on fracking – which, as the Labour party pointed out, was a temporary commitment rather than a ban – made headlines and was heralded as a signal of green intentions, but the go-ahead for a new deep coalmine in Cumbria was slipped out to little fanfare.

The conflicting signals were in keeping with a decade of environmental policy under the Conservative-led coalition and two Tory governments, during which U-turns and flip-flops have cheered and infuriated campaigners and green businesses alike. A 25-year environment plan and a target for net zero carbon emissions by 2050 have been highlights since the last general election, but the policies needed to implement them remain mired in confusion.

“[There has been] a disjunction between the government’s willingness to say the right things, and even to put them into legally binding targets, and their unwillingness to make the tough choices we need to achieve them,” said Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK. “The 2050 net zero target, while not as soon as we would like, is a real achievement. [But] it is still accompanied by road-building, new licences for oil drilling, a third runway at Heathrow and stubborn opposition to onshore wind and solar.”

Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group of green businesses, said: “The story of the last 10 years is also that of a missed opportunity to cut emissions in key areas such as buildings and transport. We have seen incredibly slow progress.”

Planning rules for onshore windfarms were changed and subsidies drastically scaled back from 2018, since when scarcely any new onshore windfarms have been built. Meanwhile, solar installations – vaunted under the coalition – have plummeted after incentives for households were taken away. A nine-year freeze on fuel duty, at a cost of £9bn a year to the Treasury, has buoyed fossil fuels and contributed to a 3% rise in transport emissions in the last five years.

There have been similar reversals in housing, one of the biggest sources of emissions. As chancellor, George Osborne scrapped the zero carbon homes standard on the eve of its planned introduction in 2016. The number of existing homes fitted with new insulation had collapsed by early 2016 and has never recovered, after the government ended home insulation programmes.

Solar panel installations have slumped since incentives were scrapped. Photograph: David Pearson/Alamy Stock Photo

While ministers talked up the prospects of electric vehicles to tackle the climate emergency and the air pollution that contributes to 40,000 premature deaths a year, tax breaks that encouraged their purchase were scrapped last year. In June, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said sales of the cars had plunged by nearly 12% year on year. Before the government promised under Theresa May to phase out diesel cars in 2040, it fought a bitter campaign in the courts to avoid having to meet clean air requirements.

There has also been confusion over the planned expansion of Heathrow: Boris Johnson promised to “lie in front of the bulldozers”, while Theresa May’s cabinet backed the developers.

These mixed signals across a wide variety of areas have produced mixed results. While greenhouse gas emissions from energy generation have fallen, largely owing to the long-term shift away from coal, carbon from transport has grown.

There has also been an impact on jobs, with a drop of nearly a third in the number of renewable energy jobs, according to the union Prospect, and job losses in home energy efficiency. Mike Clancy, Prospect’s general secretary, said: “The last decade has been a masterclass in overpromising and underdelivering on environmental policy. This election needs to be a wake-up call that the climate emergency needs a serious rethink on austerity.”

Policies for the natural environment and animal welfare also hang in the balance. While the government recently promised small-scale animal welfare improvements such as banning primates as pets and microchipping cats, a new influx of Tory MPs could result in a challenge to the hunting ban, and the party still firmly supports the controversial badger cull. Farmers, usually reliably Conservative in their voting patterns across most of England, have been promised taxpayer funding to reduce emissions and air pollution and preserve wildlife, but the agriculture and environment bills that would enable these policies have been left in limbo.

The UK will next year host the most important climate conference since the signing of the 2015 Paris agreement. That will mean unprecedented scrutiny for the new government’s plans, and an opportunity to bring coherence to what has often been a piecemeal approach to environmental policy – and to prove that the UK’s environmental commitments will be upheld after Brexit.

“Over the last 10 years we’ve seen a few steps forward for the environment, but the scales are heavily tipped towards policies which spell disaster for people and the planet,” said Dave Timms, head of political affairs at Friends of the Earth. “We’re living in a climate and ecological emergency. Tough regulation and massive investment in the right places are what we urgently need.”