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26 September 2022

The Tory “attack on nature” will undermine UK security

From fracking to farm subsidies, degrading nature is no way to guarantee supply.

By India Bourke

“Security” is the new government’s watchword. A war-time focus on improving domestic supply chains is seeping through Tory rhetoric, whether it’s justifying fracking, the exploitation of more North Sea oil, or plans to scrap environmental protections. And it is threatening to smother essential progress on the environment.

A leaked video last week showed Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary, arguing that Britain “must get every cubic inch of gas out of the North Sea”. It would also be “sheer Ludditary” to oppose the fracking industry, Rees-Mogg told the House of Commons last Thursday, equating those who resist shale gas extraction with the nineteenth-century textile workers who objected to mechanisation. Those opposed to fracking, he continued, were playing into Vladimir Putin’s hands by encouraging reliance on Russian gas.

On food too, the government risks going backwards. It is reportedly “reviewing” the implementation of its post-Brexit farming subsidies reform. Known as Elms, this scheme would be based on support for nature and climate, not just how much land a farmer owns. But the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) has urged the government to delay the switch, arguing that farmers need stability in the face of rising fertiliser prices, labour shortages, drought and disease

Arguments around increasing domestic food production would be likely to be used to justify a delay: during her Conservative leadership campaign Liz Truss claimed that she was “somebody who wants to see farmers producing food, not filling in forms, not doing red tape, not filling fields with paraphernalia like solar farms”. 

Such positions fail to recognise that the industries the government is purporting to champion are in large part still totally unfit to meet to the future’s urgent needs.

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In terms of energy, the production of yet more fossil fuels and the failure to address energy efficiency is clearly at odds with the planet’s desperate need for decarbonisation, especially when the ever-lower cost of renewable sources is making the transition to clean energy both possible and profitable.

“Perhaps Liz Truss, as an ex-Shell employee, finds it difficult to distinguish between what’s good for her old employer and what’s good for her new employer, the British people,” said Doug Parr, policy director of Greenpeace UK. “Which is unfortunate as they are diametrically opposed.”

When it comes to farming, Britain’s biodiversity and soils are in a desperate condition; a government report identified climate change and biodiversity loss as the “biggest medium to long term risks” to UK food production. Delaying Elms for even two years would reduce its savings in agricultural emissions by 2035 by half, according to a report by the Green Alliance think tank. There is no point in paying farmers to own land in the name of food security if that land is too parched, infertile and stripped of nature to be productive. 

The RSPB, the UK’s largest nature conservation charity, has described as an “attack on nature” the government’s proposed weakening of environmental rules to make way for new development, as well as the potential end of the EU’s habitats directive, which ensures the conservation of rare species. “Make no mistake, we are angry,” the charity tweeted over the weekend. “Abandoning the environmental land management schemes after five years of work would be catastrophic for nature,” added Tom Lancaster, head of farming and land management policy at the RSPB. “Nature underpins our health, economy and food security.”

Some may argue that it’s fine to develop land for farming, or frack for gas, as long as you also remove the planning restrictions on green initiatives like onshore wind (as the government has finally announced it will do). When Russia is threatening to cut off gas to Europe and its war in Ukraine has caused prices to rocket, they argue, supply security must be the over-arching policy aim. Yet there is a bigger question: what food and energy “security” actually means.

The government’s support for fracking sums-up its misguided approach. As Jim Watson, professor of energy policy at University College London, explained: “The amount of shale resource estimated to be in the UK, together with the uncertainty about the speed of production, means that UK shale production is very unlikely to have an impact on gas prices.” There is not enough of it, and it would take too long to exploit, to make a difference.

[See also: The mystery of the pine marten’s return to London]

For Tim Lang, a food policy professor at City University, London, the potential scrapping of Elms also wouldn’t necessarily result in more domestic food production. It would be evidence for a resurgence of a “neo-imperialist policy” of “cheap food from anywhere”.

Instead of achieving a safer, affordable, long-term food and energy system, what the government’s approach to “security” really seems to offer is short-term profit for the big landowners and fossil fuel companies that have lobbied against green reforms. “There’s a false notion,” Chaitanya Kumar of the New Economics Foundation said, “that big supply side interventions, through centralised projects like fracking, nuclear or north sea oil and gas will solve the problem, but instead it only reveals the myopic view of politicians influenced by incumbent interests.” He pointed to the documented influence of pro-fracking and gas lobbying groups on politicians.

The claim that opposition to the industry is a gift to Putin is also a “complete smear by someone clutching at straw”, adds Leo Murray, director of the climate charity Possible.

The pro-free market, libertarian think tanks and advisers who now surround Truss’s government argue that the market knows best in terms of achieving economic growth, and that government interference is to be minimised. The Institute of Economic Affairs’ Andy Mayer, for instance, told the New Statesman that “the left’s love affair with state-run energy efficiency, specifically insulation, heat pumps and heat networks is hard to understand”, since it risks putting employees of the existing energy infrastructure out of work. When it comes to windfall taxes, meanwhile, he believes “taxing companies for success is the politics of a banana republic”.

Yet in following such thinking, Truss’s “security” rhetoric risks leading her party and nation into a deeply insecure place. “We are being led by ideologues,” said Richard Murphy, a political economist at the University of Sheffield. “They’re utterly irrational with dangerous political consequences.” Without the influence of the free marketeers, he added, Britain would be implementing a bigger windfall tax, energy efficiency support, reducing consumption and changing the way we generate power.

Add in support for farmers to restore nature and you have something that starts to answer international calls for a truly secure and sustainable future. Britain may be an island nation, but when it comes to the combined threats to the climate and food, no country can consider itself alone anymore.

[See also: Why Labour is going green at its conference]

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