Johnson looks set to prioritise “getting Brexit done” during his first few days within his new majority and while that will have huge ramifications for UK green policy, there are also a few other areas that the Prime Minister needs to address immediately in order to boost business confidence in delivering a net-zero economy by 2050.
So, what should be at the top of the Tories’ bulging in-tray of green policy issues?
1) Future-proof post-Brexit environmental standard loopholes
As mentioned, Johnson will look to pass his “oven-baked” Brexit deal, before Christmas, including a raft of changes that would alter 40 years of EU environmental regulations.
Part of the Withdrawal Agreement on the departure from the EU customs union and the laws that it enforces is a new regulatory system that the UK will need to stick to as part of any future trade deals with EU nations. This has been called a “level playing field”.
This would require the UK to conform to EU standards on environmental policies and others as part of a trade deal, but the UK has no legal obligation to maintain current standards if no trade deal is agreed, this has already sparked concern that the UK could renegade on environmental standards in pursuit of other trade deals, notably with the US. This includes directives on industrial emissions, transport emissions – including a variety of rules on Euro 5, 6 and 7 vehicles – waste, and biodiversity.
The Prime Minister needs to immediately address concerns that the UK could renegade these standards in pursuit of short-term trade deals. Ideally, the approved deal that eventually passes through Government has mechanisms in place for an independent body – notably the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) – to ensure that environmental standards aren’t relaxed and are improved upon as the UK nears its net-zero target deadline.
Earlier this year, a coalition of almost 40 environmental organisations including Greenpeace, WWF UK and ClientEarth called for the Draft Environment Bill to be altered, to ensure that the public can request disclosure from the UK’s post-Brexit watchdog.
Speaking of the Environment Bill…
2) Pass the Environment Bill into law
Johnson can likely answer the first demand by responding to the second. The Environment Bill introduced a wide suite of new environmental policies including powers to tackle air pollution, biodiversity net-gain, waste management and deposit return schemes, as well as increasing sustainable water management and passed its second reading in October..
While the majority of MPs have supported it so far it has since been placed on the back burner following the dissolution of Parliament in November and subsequent General Election. The Agriculture Bill, Fisheries Bill and a revamped decarbonisation plan for the transport sector will also need to be reconsidered amongst other papers and plans.
The Environment Bill, which features policy frameworks for deposit return schemes and the polluter-pays principles for waste, is in urgent need of being resurrected.
In light of the voluntary level playing field system in the current iteration of the Brexit deal, MPs from across the opposition and Government benches will likely reiterate their concerns that the Bill lacks teeth and weakens the environmental policy agenda.
Former Conservative and now Independent MP Antoinette Sandbach, who also sat on the energy and climate change select committee until it was disbanded in 2016, called on the government to give assurances that the Bill would enshrine a ‘non-regression principle’ – meaning environmental standards wouldn’t fall behind where they currently are. This point was picked up by many other MPs, including Conservative MPs Richard Graham and Neil Parish, Labour’s Mary Creagh and Caroline Lucas.
3) Confirm Government’s decision on banning fracking
Fracking has been a contentious issue amongst communities and green groups. While the Greens, Lib Dems and Labour have vocal in their support for banning fracking in the UK, the Conservatives have been sending out mixed messages.
Opposition parties have accused the Conservatives of imposing a moratorium and effectively banning the process in order to avoid electoral losses in marginal seats where industry firms are looking to operate.
In fact, one week after the Tories introduce the moratorium on fracking at the start of campaigning, the party issued a document enabling new fracking applications to be submitted over the next few years.
With too many questions marks hanging over the practice, Johnson should reiterate the moratorium with an all-out ban in the UK. Whether he will, is a different story.
4) Explain where climate scrutiny sits internally
In October, Johnson was revealed as the chair for a new Cabinet committee on climate change that will drive progress towards net-zero across all areas of Government.
Johnson will steer the new internal committee, which has been established as part of the Government’s response to the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) annual progress report. The aims of the sub-committee are to establish governance and enforcement mechanisms that accelerate cross-government efforts to deliver the legally binding net-zero target that is set for 2050..
However, the aims and strength of this committee are yet to be fully fleshed out and. The election results have caused further confusion here, after the Environment Audit Committee (EAC), the sub-committee of MPs that currently scrutinises climate action from Government, saw its Labour chair Mary Creagh lose the Wakefield seat to Conservative candidate Imran Ahmad-Khan. The EAC committee is subject to re-election regardless.
In a similar vein to the OEP, the Government needs to set out where climate policy scrutiny will sit, what role Johnson will have in his internal chair capacity, and what MPs can hold the cabinet to account over performance against the net-zero emissions target.
What a Conservative majority means for short-term environmental legislation
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already outlined the first 100 days of a Conservative Party majority during the General Election cycle. There would be “future schemes for agriculture, fishing and the environment” post-Brexit, including the Environment Bill, which had been previously presented to Parliament in the previous session.
In the immediate days after the General Election, a raft of post-Brexit Environment legislation will look to be signed off under a Boris Johnson-led Tory majority government.
Plans for a Boris Johnson majority government include an immediate fresh Queen’s Speech on 19 December – followed by passing legislation on the EU Withdrawal Act before Christmas, including a raft of changes that would alter 40 years of EU environmental regulations.