10 green questions for the new cabinet

James Murray
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10 green questions for the new cabinet

Assuming the government will at some point get back to the business of governing, some important issues await resolution

What follows all comes with the caveat that parts of it could be rendered obsolete in 5,4,3,2…

The Prime Minister has requested permission to form a government and appointed her new cabinet, but at the time of writing it remains unclear if she has the votes needed to pass a Queen's Speech or the authority to resist those in her party who want to hand her the number of a good removals firm.

However, let us assume for a moment that May, or whoever succeeds her in the event of a successful leadership challenge, manages to stitch together a functioning government. What happens then for the green economic agenda?

The election campaign may have surprised everyone, but it conformed to recent history in its failure to provide much clarity on the myriad policy challenges the UK faces. As the FT's John Gapper observed as the Labour surge began to gather momentum: "If Theresa May does blow this, the Conservative manifesto will go down as the vaguest suicide note in history".

Consequently, when the political dust eventually settles the crucial questions deferred by the campaign will immediately reappear and start clogging up in-trays at Number 10, the Treasury, the Department for Business, and Defra.

The vagueness of the Conservative manifesto might have been pretty poor at winning elections, but it is truly terrible for governance, especially when the country is facing a potentially catastrophic economic challenge in the form of Brexit and a complex, multi-dimensional industrial revolution in the form of long term decarbonisation.

Below are just 10 of the green questions Theresa May and her team needs to answer as soon as possible, preferably without recourse to vacuous sound bites. And, if there is to be a second election this year, Jeremy Corbyn and his team would be wise to have good answers for them too:

1. When will the Clean Growth Plan be released? And how does the government plan to address the looming clean energy investment hiatus?

The Clean Growth Plan is already late - very late. The lawyers at ClientEarth are getting twitchy and legal action could follow if it doesn't materialise soon. After an impressive seven years of emissions reductions the UK's progress is in danger of stalling. The country is no longer on track to meet its targets from the mid-2020s onwards and every month the plan is delayed has a material impact on the pipeline for new clean infrastructure projects.

Given the long lead time for new clean energy projects, the Treasury urgently needs to clarify the future of the Levy Control Framework beyond 2020 or risk a damaging investment hiatus. Similarly, a clear plan is needed for improving domestic energy efficiency, rolling our green heat technologies, and turning the government's impressive backing for electric vehicles and smart grids into major new industries.

The Conservative manifesto may have only mentioned the UK's 2050 carbon targets, but under the law we would need a very good reason not to meet our medium term targets for the 2020s and 2030s. The UK has made good progress on decarbonisation in recent years, but the clock is ticking and delay undermines the country's competitiveness and makes meeting our climate goals ever harder. The chatter in Whitehall is the plan is almost ready, why are we waiting?

2. Does the government support the development of onshore wind farms in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland?

The Conservative manifesto is opposed to onshore wind farms in England, supportive of them on Scottish islands, and says nothing about the rest of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. If, as most industry experts expect, the promised review of energy costs shows onshore wind and solar are more cost efficient than new gas-fired power plants will the government provide a route to market for new projects in locations where they can command community support?

The Scottish government wants to get building. The potential is there for over a GW of clean power capacity at virtually no cost to billpayers. Is that really something the government can afford to turn down?

3. Who will chair the promised energy cost review?

Before the election, Conservative friendly papers were briefed that one of the review's target will be green levies, but any truly independent review would surely acknowledge the growing cost effectiveness of clean energy and the hidden subsidies handed to fossil fuels. As sponsored think tank reports have a habit of showing, you can make an economic analysis of the energy market say pretty much anything based on the assumptions you use and the ideological inclination of the authors. Who will get this crucial gig and will they give sufficient weight to the need to decarbonise?

4. Does the government really want to go back to court over the UK's air pollution?

The attempt to use purdah as an excuse to not release the legally mandated air quality plan was one of the low lights of a miserable campaign. The draft plan that followed was in some ways even worse.

The government actually has some good things to say on air quality, largely thanks to its impressive funding for the emerging electric vehicle (EV) sector. But the failure to properly back pollution charges, come forward with clear plans for a diesel scrappage scheme, and tackle incentives for polluting cars is politics at its worse. There is a cross party consensus for a more ambitious approach. Will a minority government finally face down the right wing papers and work across the aisle to deliver a plan that is commensurate to this public health crisis?

5. Would it be a 'bad deal' if the UK continued to adhere to EU environmental standards? Do we really want to crash out of the EU over toasters?

Leaving aside the question as to whether or not no deal really is better than a bad deal with the EU (how catastrophically bad would it have to be?), where do environmental policies fit into May's election victory-squandering and largely meaningless construction?

The election result and several cabinet minister have made crystal clear a new approach to Brexit is required that prioritises delivering a good economic deal for the UK. The EU has been equally clear adherence to environmental standards is a red line for any UK-EU trade deal. There are strong arguments for largely accepting the EU's position on green issues and moving on quickly to the difficult stuff like freedom of movement - after all, EU environmental policies are broadly popular and are generally in line with the UK's goals under the Paris Agreement.

But at the same time The Sun and The Telegraph want to make tearing up rules on the energy efficiency of our toasters a totemic issue, ridiculous as that may sound. Similarly, the new Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, has expressed his opposition to the Habitat's Directive. Where does the government stand on issues that could obliterate hopes of a good Brexit deal? 

6. Will the government make environmental performance a component of a new agricultural subsidy regime?

It seems pretty clear the Common Agricultural Policy is a goner, but what comes next? There are compelling plans being developed for paying farmers for the ecosystem services they can provide in terms of biodiversity, clean air, water, and soil, and flood resilience. Is this an idea the government is exploring? And more broadly has it considered the implications of mismanaging Brexit for food security and food prices, because that is definitely worth looking at.

7. How will the UK replace Euratom?

As a case study on how complicated and potentially self-harming Brexit could be you could do worse than look at the case of Euratom. BusinessGreen's understanding is some officials were both horrified and bemused when word came down Brexit would mean quitting the pan-EU nuclear regulator. Building a new nuclear watchdog is an immense undertaking with implications for both the UK's energy security and cancer treatments. It also presents a further challenge to a nuclear industry already wrestling with the travails of Toshiba and the Prime Minister's apparent concerns about inward Chinese investment. Is work underway to replace Euratom, and if not, why not?

8. Has the government assessed whether a UK fracking industry could become a stranded asset?

The Conservative manifesto throws everything at trying to kick-start a fracking industry that has been something of an obsession for Number 10 for over five years, but which has to date singularly failed to deliver. There is talk of a new oversight regime, more funding for communities that host fracking, and fast tracked planning. And yet, public opposition remains considerable - a fact that could become a major consideration when the government lacks a workable majority.

In the long term, the bigger challenge is whether backing fracking is the right strategic choice at a time when the country needs to decarbonise. Has the government done any work to explore the cost of fracked gas and whether the infrastructure you are proposing to put in could quickly become stranded in a low carbon economy?

9. How environmentally reckless does Donald Trump have to be before the government will criticise him? And what does that mean for a trade deal?

The only environmental issue that gained cut through at this election - apart, that is, from the Conservative Party's antipathy towards foxes - was the weakness of the government's response to Donald Trump's flouncing out of the Paris Agreement. There is no doubt a case for not antagonising a White House team with the temperament and maturity of a hungry toddler, but US resistance to climate action is not an issue that is going to simply go away.

Where will the UK stand when talk turns to carbon tariffs on US goods? Does the UK risk alienating the new low carbon pioneers in Europe and Asia by failing to more explicitly join them in condemning the US government?

And, most importantly, what does this mean for a prospective trade deal with the US? If we can't hold a strong line when Trump attempts to take a sledge hammer to an agreement the UK has determined is in its national interests will continue to block imports of chlorinated chicken or hormone injected beef? Will we demand that we'll only import US shale gas if it complies with demanding standards for tackling methane leaks? If not, why not?

10. Conservatives claim to be committed to leaving the environment in a better condition than we inherited, but how does the government plan to honour this admirable commitment?

The 25 Year Plan for Nature that is meant to answer this question remains locked in a cupboard somewhere at Defra, denying it even a walk on part in the manifesto.

The Department has now had five Secretaries of State in seven years, none of which can point to a significant policy achievement or even a memorable moment, beyond Liz Truss' auto-parodic conference speech and Owen Paterson's laughable attempt to accuse badgers of "moving the goalposts". Biodiversity rates are falling, recycling rates have stalled, air pollution remains at illegal levels, and we are off track to meet our carbon targets.

The UK has built a bold and vibrant low carbon economy and is home to some of the world's most innovative clean tech firms and green businesses, but without stronger political backing and some clarity on long term policy thinking we risk jeopardising this leadership position. Politicians from across the political spectrum understand this and are committed to driving the green agenda forward. But one of the great unanswered questions of this most disorientating of elections is where the Conservative Party leadership stands on one of the defining challenges of the age. It is time for some answers.

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