Vested interests are winning the battle over the UK’s climate change commitments, observes Andrew Taylor-Dawson

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this year issued its starkest warning yet about the action needed by 2030 to avert irreversible and catastrophic climate change. It said that “without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible” to keep warming at safe levels of below 1.5°C.

The world is not only facing climate change, but a web of overlapping crises affecting nature. We are witnessing the sixth mass extinction event and the systems that support biodiversity, from the rainforests to the oceans, are under threat.

A report by the Environmental Audit Committee in January on the state of English rivers concluded that a “chemical cocktail of sewage, slurry and plastic” was putting public health and nature at risk.

Our polluted air also kills up to 36,000 people per year, agricultural run-off has been polluting our rivers and contributing to ocean dead zones, while unsustainable fishing practices threaten the biodiversity of our waters. 

The Government has been keen to be seen as taking bold steps to tackle these crises – from backing once fringe calls for re-wilding (restoring large areas of habitat reintroducing species) to legislating on air pollution, farming reforms and banning the horticultural use of peat. 

But it has also repeatedly reneged on commitments and has now left a total of eight promised bills on the natural world dead in the water. As reported by the Guardian, the missed opportunities and abandoned promises range from measures on commercial fishing operations to post-Brexit farming reforms that would have significantly benefited wildlife. 

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Indeed, the Wildlife Trusts recently criticised the Government for failing to follow through on farming reform. Its CEO Craig Bennett branded it “a disgrace”.

“Out-of-date farming policies have caused degraded soils, polluted rivers, and extreme loss of wildlife including the disappearance of insects and pollinators. Surely taxpayers’ money should be used to reward farmers to grow food in a way that is good for nature, rather than harming it,” he added.

Measures to ensure sustainability, tackle climate change and protect nature are now resoundingly popular with the public and the Government has tried to shadow this direction of travel. But, for all its rhetoric, we are now seeing repeated backsliding and abandoned promises. Boris Johnson’s much reported promise to “build back beaver” is now as ridiculous as it originally sounded.

“We’re seeing a perfect storm of threats to nature from every quarter caused by Government inaction, delay and reneging on commitments,” said Dr Lissa Batey, head of marine conservation at the Wildlife Trusts.

For a Government apparently committed to halting the decline of nature – in what the WWF has described as “one of the most nature depleted countries in the world” – what we’re seeing looks much more like the continuation of business as usual. 


A Lacklustre Environment Act

The Government was forced into an embarrassing U-turn last year on the release of sewage into rivers and the sea following public outcry as the Environment Bill passed through Parliament.

Until they received substantial opposition, ministers seemed more concerned with protecting unscrupulous water companies than ensuring that people and wildlife do not suffer the side-effects of this pollution.

When the legislation passed into law, many campaigners criticised the weakness of the measures contained within it.

Friends of the Earth stated that the newly-created Office for Environmental Protections – billed by the Government as a “world leading environmental watchdog” – “wasn’t good enough”. On the independence of the new body and its ability to punish the breaking of environmental laws, the legislation didn’t go far enough. 

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Friends of the Earth criticised everything from the Bill’s measures on plastic waste to its provisions for addressing air pollution. For a piece of legislation vaunted by the Government, it significantly missed the mark. 

These failures must also be seen in the context of the Government’s much-criticised plans to develop the Cambo oilfield in the North Sea, and the potential opening of a new coal mine in Cumbria.

When push comes to shove, vested business interests are repeatedly coming out on top. While beaver reintroduction or tackling air pollution make for good soundbites, the Government’s commitment to meaningful, substantial action has repeatedly been shown to be lacking. 

With less than a decade left to reduce emissions to the level required to prevent the most dangerous impacts of global warming – combined with the overlapping crises of habitat degradation and species loss – it is essential that we act now. 

While taking the necessary steps will not be easy, it could also be an economic opportunity – creating green jobs through better stewardship of our natural world. 

The climate emergency cannot be fixed with more hot air from those in power.

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