The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is committed to a net zero emissions target by 2050. But is the new Government committed to supporting business and environment? In this article, John Barwise assesses the green credentials of some of the key cabinet appointments.

Boris Johnson has delivered his first Commons statement as Prime Minister, setting out his new Government’s policies and priorities for the remainder of this parliamentary session and beyond. As expected, Johnson said his new Government’s priority is to leave the EU with or without a deal “no ifs or buts,” by 31 October.

Within hours of taking office, the Prime Minister sacked 11 senior ministers, to make way for pro-Brexit supporters: six others resigning before being pushed. Senior cabinet ministers with key business, environment and climate change policies in their brief, have all been replaced, specifically those heading the departments for business and environment.

In the Prime Minister’s own words this is; “the beginning of a new golden age.”

Key Cabinet changes

Business, Energy, Innovation & Industrial Strategy (BEIS)

BEIS was a merger of the former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), and brought together policies for business, industrial strategy, science and innovation, with those for energy and climate change.

Greg Clark, who was Secretary of State for BEIS for the last three years, has been replaced by Andrea Leadsom, a prominent Brexit campaigner. Clark was a strong advocate of clean energy, renewables and clean growth and was fully committed to the Government’s net zero carbon emissions policy.

Andrea Leadsom is no stranger to senior cabinet positions, having been Environment Secretary at Defra and before that, Minister of State for Energy at DECC. At DECC, Leadsom oversaw the department’s actions to close the flagship Green Deal programme, scrap the UK’s zero carbon homes policy and slash the feed in tariff rates for solar energy. Having previously worked at the Treasury, Leadsom is not a big supporter of subsidies, and argued that the renewables industry should “over time, stand on their own two feet.”

Leadsom’s voting record shows a similar trend on several fronts, having earlier voted against measures to prevent climate change, including a proposed strategy for carbon capture and storage. She has also voted against variable rates of vehicle tax based on CO2 emissions and voted for fracking and for applying the climate change levy tax to electricity generated from renewables.

During her time as Environment Secretary at Defra, Leadsom was strongly criticised for failing to take urgent action on air quality, but was credited with introducing plastics legislation, particularly on eliminating microbeads from cosmetic products.

This week, Rachel Reeves, Chair of the BEIS Committee wrote to the new Secretary of State to press for action on a series of low-carbon policy fronts including renewables, carbon capture and energy efficiency, to ramp up UK efforts to meet future carbon budgets and calling for stronger BEIS-Treasury collaboration to ensure that the Treasury’s net zero funding review considers not only the costs, but also the benefits, of delivering the new target.

“The Government should also overcome its ideological opposition to on-shore wind — the cheapest form of electricity generation in the UK — and set out plans to fulfil this technology’s huge potential,” Reeves argues.

Despite Leadsom’s earlier stance on environment and climate change, there does seem to be a subtle but important shift to a more pro-climate position, with her saying recently that she voted for a climate emergency, and would focus the Government’s industrial strategy on the clean growth tech sector, which she argued could contribute more to the UK economy than financial services.

In a separate development, Claire Perry, who lost her position as Energy and Clean Growth Minister at BEIS, has been appointed UK President of the UN climate change talks (COP 26), which is expected to be held in the UK in 2020. As Energy and Climate Minister, Perry helped set up the international “powering past coal alliance” (PPCA), a coalition of national and local governments and businesses committed to phasing out unabated coal power.

Perry also championed the BEIS Clean Growth Strategy aimed at decarbonising the UK economy, and backed the introduction of a net zero emissions target. At the same time, she defended Government support for shale gas exploitation in the UK, which she argued is part of the UK’s future, although she dismissed the fracking industry’s request to relax regulations.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)

Defra is responsible for environmental protection, agriculture and food production, fisheries and rural communities and leads Britain at the EU on environment matters and in other international negotiations on sustainable development.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has been replaced by former Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers. As Environment Secretary, Gove developed a good reputation as a green advocate, describing the natural environment as; “our most precious inheritance”, and promising to leave it, “in a better state than we inherited it.”

Gove is the principle architect behind the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan. Apart from widespread criticism over his failure to tackle England’s air pollution problems effectively, he has enjoyed broad support over his handling of other environmental problems, including waste and recycling and for his searing attack on water company bosses for failing to invest enough in infrastructure.

Gove, a key figure in the Brexit campaign, now heads the Cabinet Office, with responsibility for preparing to take the UK out of Europe.

Theresa Villiers, who takes over as Environment Secretary, has a hard act to follow. In her first turn at the despatch box, just days after her new appointment, Villiers defended the Government’s policy on plastics and announced additional measures on clothing waste but was challenged by the Shadow Environment Secretary over her environmental commitments.

Shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman accused Villiers of “repeatedly” voting against measures to protect the environment and tackle climate change. Villiers voted not to reduce permitted CO2 emission rates of new homes and voted in favour of applying climate change levy to electricity generated from renewables but did vote to reform the energy market with regard to reducing CO2 emissions and securing supply.

On other environmental issues, Villiers has campaigned to protect green belt land and urban green spaces and urged Defra to deliver on its commitments to plant more trees as part of the wider clean growth strategy. She is also a strong advocate of improving waste management and waste collection, and strongly supported Defra’s plans to ban microbead plastics.

An interesting addition to the Defra ministerial team is Zac Goldsmith as an Under-Secretary of State, in a combined role with the Department for International Development (DfID). Goldsmith, a former member of the Environmental Audit Committee, has been a long-time campaigner on environmental issues and is a prominent member of the Conservative Environment Network. He has also served as vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Prevention of Plastic Waste.

In a post on his Twitter account, Goldsmith said his role would focused on: “work across Defra & DfID to expand Protected Areas around our overseas territories, continue Britain’s leadership Vs the Illegal Wildlife Trade, make sure nature recovery is at the heart of UK Aid, & that we raise animal welfare standards at home.”

Early days

The Government’s legal commitment to a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050 has cross-party support and no doubt BEIS and Defra will redouble their efforts to deliver it. But it’s a challenge, given that the UK is forecast to miss targets for the fourth and fifth Carbon Budgets, which takes us to 2032.

Ultimate responsibility for delivering net zero emissions rests with BEIS Secretary, Andrea Leadsom who, in her leadership bid against Johnson, said she would set up a cabinet sub-committee to oversee plans to fully decarbonise by 2050. She didn’t get the top job but does have the opportunity to accelerate decarbonisation in BEIS’ Clean Growth Strategy, as her predecessor Greg Clark planned to do, and work towards ending tax breaks for fossil fuel companies.

Leadsom will also need to build cross-departmental support, especially with the Treasury and Defra, and the Departments for Transport and Local Government, to deliver net zero by 2050.

Much of the Government’s green credibility rests on the Environment Bill, which former Environment Secretary, Michael Gove said would be a world leader in tackling the catastrophic decline in biodiversity and impacts of climate change and would better protect the environment than current EU laws. The Bill also includes provisions for a new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which will be set up to hold the Government to account over its environmental commitments and climate change.

However, the draft bill is deficient in important policy areas and was recently criticised by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) as; “lacking environmental accountability for action by government departments.” EAC also claims that OEP enforcement powers would be limited to administrative compliance rather than achieving environmental standards, which EAC says is a; “departure from the enforcement procedure of the European Commission.”

As the new Environment Secretary, Theresa Villiers has her work cut out addressing some of these issues. She will also struggle to fulfil legal duties due to staff shortages and budget cuts, with a high number of Defra employees also being seconded to work on Brexit strategies.

Her first job, however, will be how to deal with deficiencies in the current draft Environment Bill where it fails to meet the non-regression clause set out in the Withdrawal Agreement, on which the Brexit strategy is based.

The Prime Minister was elected on a Conservative Party mandate to deliver Brexit, with or without a deal “come what may,” and this is the new Government’s priority. How this will affect businesses in terms of changes to environmental regulations and climate commitments is very much work in progress.

Last reviewed 8 August 2019