“Stay close to the Americans… Stick up for freedom, for democracy… cut taxes and deregulate wherever you can to make this [Britain] the greatest place to live and invest.” That was Boris Johnson’s advice for whoever will succeed him during his final Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday (20 July). Coming a day after the UK experienced its first real taste of climate change as temperatures inched past 40°C for the first time and fires broke out across the country, the call to slash red tape arbitrarily was dangerously irresponsible.
The UK has railed against EU bureaucracy since the day it joined the European Economic Community, as it was then known, back in 1973. Johnson used his time as Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in the late 1980s to mock EU legislation and exaggerate its reach. Brexit was all about “taking back control” and allowing the UK to set its own, and fewer, laws. If countries are serious about climate action and protecting nature, however, regulation is the only way forward – and Johnson has recognised this fact before.
In September 2021, in a speech to the UN General Assembly before Cop26, Johnson highlighted “science and innovation… by capitalism and by free markets, and…new green technology” as ways the UK was cutting emissions. It is also under his watch that the UK set in law the world’s most ambitious climate change target, aimed at cutting emissions by 78 per cent compared with 1990 levels by 2035. One of the concrete examples he gave in that speech to the UN last year on UK green leadership was the “extraordinary pace” of the growth of its electric vehicle market. And why such growth? “Because we have set a hard deadline” to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, said Johnson. He must know such a ban will, ultimately, require regulation.
“Regulation sets the framework in which our markets operate,” said Jan Rosenow, the UK-based European programme director at the Regulatory Assistance Project, an energy non-governmental organisation. “For the market to deliver on the energy transition, we need clear regulatory signals to industry and consumers to ensure investments are aligned with climate goals.”
Minimum energy efficiency standards is one such signal: under these rules, household electric appliances are labelled from A to G. The legislation has delivered “large energy and carbon savings while saving people money”, said Rosenow. “Or think about the decarbonisation of the power sector – without regulation we would not have seen the same progress on renewables.”
Indeed, most companies want, more than anything, a stable regulatory framework in which to operate. The government’s commitment to zero-emission vehicles signals to the market and consumers that a transition is coming and that changes need to be made. Rather than threatening business, regulation in these areas will help to “safeguard the competitiveness of the UK car industry”, said Shaun Spiers, executive director of the environmental think tank Green Alliance.
On the other hand, deregulation has adversely impacted the energy transition and climate action. “When the Zero Carbon Homes standard was scrapped in 2015 it led to more than one million new homes being constructed that are not fit for net zero and now require expensive retrofitting,” said Rosenow.
This week’s extreme heatwaves show “the climate crisis is here”, said Kyle Lischak, the UK head of ClientEarth. “Tearing up regulation that protects nature, the climate and our health would be reckless and irresponsible. The government should be putting the environment at the heart of policymaking, with ambitious targets and strong plans. We cannot afford to rip up rule books that are there to ensure a just and liveable future.”
Nikki Reisch, the climate and energy programme director at the US-based Center for International Environmental Law, added: “If there’s anything to learn from ‘staying close to the Americans’, it’s that cutting taxes and deregulating is a surefire way to worsen every environmental crisis. Lining industry pockets and putting the fossil fuel foxes in charge of the sweltering hot henhouse is precisely what brought the present disasters upon us.”
Spiers continued: “No one should defend unnecessary regulation. The trouble is, every red tape challenge – we have about one a year – comes up with the same conclusion: most regulations improve lives and strengthen the economy.” He cited the 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster as a “terrible reminder of what can happen when deregulation is pursued as an end in itself”. Flammable cladding on the outside of the London high-rise flats caused a terrible fire, killing 72 people. Lax buildings regulations, agreed as part of the former prime minister David Cameron’s “one in, one out” and later “one-in, two-out” deregulatory policy plan, were at least partly to blame for the tragedy.
In that UN speech last year, Johnson said it was time for “humanity to grow up” in its attitude to climate change. He also declared that humanity is “maturing” and “taking responsibility for the destruction we are inflicting… upon our planet [and] ourselves”, yet his last words to the House of Commons yesterday showed that he was incapable of that.
[See also: 40°C and wildfires in London. What happens next?]