The dash for growth by Kwasi Kwarteng means unshackling City bankers and property developers from the taxes and regulations that prevent them from paving over what’s left of Britain’s green and pleasant land.
The humble concrete mixer will be elevated to exalted status. There will be more executive homes built on greenfield sites. More distribution sheds dotted along busy A-roads. And more urban renewal of the kind that involves tearing down buildings in a plume of dust and carbon emissions to replace them with something not much better, at least not in environmental terms.
At no point in the chancellor’s speech on Friday did he mention the need to reach net zero, or how his plans would help our ailing planet while doling out billions of pounds in tax cuts to richer households and businesses.
Boris Johnson’s administration at least put in place plans for achieving net zero, and Michael Gove considered ways of reversing 70 or more years of severe biodiversity loss.
As Fiona Harvey has documented in the Guardian, Johnson’s premiership brought “more major environmental legislation and arguably greater progress on tackling the climate and nature crises than either of his Conservative predecessors in the past decade”. That’s a low bar when David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne did their best to kick almost all green initiatives into the long grass, but Johnson did put in place the Agriculture Act, the Fisheries Act, and the Environment Act, coupled with plans to phase out petrol and diesel cars, create a boom in offshore wind, and protect a third of the UK’s land and seas.
Johnson’s legacy, though, is largely rhetoric and very little action. That’s the message from those who attended committee meetings to put meat on the bones of his “10-point plan for a green industrial revolution” only to find themselves in nothing more than a talking shop. One member of Johnson’s Green Jobs Delivery Group, who preferred to remain nameless, said that if the discussion had ever broadened beyond how many millions of trees could be planted in the UK, a strategy might have emerged.
It didn’t seem to matter that senior executives from Siemens, BMW and E.ON were sitting around the table with the head of England’s further education colleges and representatives of the major industrial lobby groups – the discussion still didn’t go anywhere.
By the time Liz Truss sacked the minister in charge who chaired the delivery group, Greg Hands – whose green credentials were burnished when he resigned from a ministerial post in 2018 over plans to expand Heathrow – the group appears to have achieved nothing but an agenda for the next meeting.
Tree planting is indeed an important issue facing urban landscapes, as well as a countryside plagued by drought. Economically, there is also a good reason to talk about the subject: the UK imports 80% of the wood needed for items ranging from toilet paper to construction timber when well-managed forests could fill the gap.
A junior climate minister – well-meaning and well-connected though he is – is clearly only window dressing in a government that wants to bring back fracking
Still, it was one initiative among many, and a change that was poised to spread across major industrial and commercial sectors could not happen while the political focus lay elsewhere.
Green Tories want us to think the party still cares after Truss appointed Graham Stuart as junior minister for climate change. Stuart was one of the leading voices urging Theresa May to enshrine the net zero target in law. He has also been involved in the Globe group of legislators who push for laws mandating climate action to be passed by national parliaments.
But a junior minister – well-meaning and well-connected though he is – is clearly only window dressing in a government that wants to bring back fracking, produce more North Sea oil and rip up planning laws.
Maybe Truss will reveal herself as a champion of green policies: she spoke several times about the need to act on the climate crisis during her leadership campaign and has committed herself to attending Cop27 in Egypt and the 15th biodiversity Cop in Canada.
Except that the new prime minister, as environment secretary, cut subsidies to solar farms. She has also shown little appetite for accelerating an upgrade of the electricity grid to accommodate more renewable energy providers, or supporting major manufacturing industries as they transition to net zero.
Without a prime minister and cabinet that understands the risk of a dash for growth – one that generates yet more carbon – it will fall to fracking protesters and nimbys to prevent the UK going backwards. They will need to be on the streets in force to block what in most cases will be disastrous and unjustified initiatives.