The Queen’s Speech has reaffirmed the government’s ambition to maintain the golden thread of environmentalism throughout its policy agenda. With the next election now firmly on the horizon as we move from a pandemic to a cost of living crisis, the government must seek sensible and popular green solutions and ignores calls to scale back its green agenda. Ministers must grasp this opportunity to deliver bold environmental policies to tackle the cost of living and strengthen our national security – not least for the Conservatives’ electoral prospects.
Just over a quarter of the bills outlined contribute towards achieving net zero or restoring nature. The Energy Security Bill, for example, cannot reach the statute books quickly enough. Global inflation has hit the UK’s economy again, in great part due to the manipulation of international energy markets by malign actors.
In the 1970s, Saudi Arabia caused a fossil fuel crisis to punish the West for its support for Israel. Today, Vladimir Putin uses Russia’s position as a global oil and gas giant to push up household bills in the UK and Europe for supporting Ukraine. The difference today is that thanks to cheap and clean homegrown renewables, we have a chance to end exposure to autocratic petrostates who weaponise energy.
The Energy Security Bill delivers several key elements of the 10 Point Plan for a green industrial revolution and the recent Energy Security Strategy. This legislation will help kickstart new green industries, such as clean hydrogen and carbon capture. We need the former to back up renewables when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun shining, displacing expensive, imported gas. We need the latter to reduce emissions from industry and give a second life to the North Sea’s oil and gas fields as carbon storage sites as the extraction side becomes less economic over the coming years.
Develepment of these two new industries should be funded through revenue from the UK Emissions Trading Scheme, or out of Treasury coffers, rather than new levies on energy bills. The existing ‘green levies’ that fund legacy renewable projects are shrinking as these contracts end, and we should not add new levies on top of them during a cost of living crunch. I say this not because the levies are responsible for rising bills but because adding new levies onto bills would reduce the clean energy dividend for bill payers.
But the Energy Security Bill could go further, especially in terms of energy efficiency. We need to look at energy demand as well and insulate the UK’s draughty, cold and increasingly fuel poor homes. All eyes will be on the next budget for an expansion of the government’s most successful insulation schemes. And there are further opportunities in this parliamentary session to increase minimum energy efficiency standards for private and social tenants, helping to cut fuel poverty.
While rising energy costs dominate the environmental debate at the moment, addressing the big environmental challenges that face us – climate change and nature loss – requires action beyond reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. Restoring our natural fabric is equally important as developing new clean technologies and industries if we’re to hand on a healthy environment to future generations.
The government has already confirmed that the Levelling Up Bill will reform environmental assessment in the planning system. Still, it could go further in a couple of areas to boost nature. Firstly, the legislation should deliver previous government commitments of introducing local design codes to allow communities to adopt higher environmental standards for new builds in their area. This measure would empower communities to instruct local leaders and developers to create more green spaces or use sustainable building materials. Second, the government could create a new ‘wild belt’ designation for areas that are to be managed for nature’s recovery.
As the local elections demonstrated, there is no political capital to be made out of backsliding on the environment. Despite the fears of some in the Conservative Party, the anti-net zero Reform Party made virtually no progress. Far more telling was the success of Green Party and Liberal Democrat candidates in winning votes and seats in the Tory heartlands. As the policies in this Queen’s Speech are developed, the government must continue to pursue bold environmental policies.
If the Conservatives wish to remain competitive in future elections, they must stay the course. The Queen’s Speech provides multiple legislative opportunities to reform and replace EU regulations with British-made rules to promote clean growth and protect nature. After great strides forward, ahead of an election is not the time for Ministers and Members of Parliament to go slow on the environment. They must press on and deliver the bold net zero and natural environment pledges that were at the heart of 2019’s Corbyn-thrashing manifesto.