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30 October 2018

The Budget was a betrayal of the environment

The Conservatives are dodging the challenges presented by global climate change. That needs to end now.

By India Bourke

“How dare he?” Those were the three words that sprang to mind after watching Philip Hammond deliver yesterday’s Budget speech. How dare he pay little more than lip service to the urgent need to protect the natural world?

“We cannot secure our children’s future unless we secure our planet’s future”, the Chancellor solemnly announced to parliament, before going on to omit any mention of climate change – the greatest existential threat humanity has arguably ever faced.

Instead he launched into yet another tirade against plastic, and sent my remaining shreds of environmental optimism sliding into free fall.

Afterwards, when Green MP Caroline Lucas raised the need for more funding for green energy, she was cut off by the speaker.

I try not to get angry about government inaction on the global ecological collapse. But yesterday was an exception. Britain may use billions of disposable cups and other items each year, but plastic is not the main cause of the sixth mass extinction currently unfolding across the world. It is not even close.

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Even if it were, in no possible world is a new tax on (some) plastics enough to make up for the government’s dearth of action on green issues. The new budget sowed doubt over whether current carbon prices will be maintained, incentivised driving by freezing fuel-duty, and kept down the cost of short-haul flights. 

Lying awake last night, my post-budget depression thus morphed into outright grief, as I contemplated the extent of what the government could and should be doing.

Just weeks ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world just has 30 years to reach net zero emissions. The scale of intervention that will require should be putting governments on a “war footing”, according to one of the IPCC’s scientists.

And that’s just to solve the climate crisis – let alone the run-away problems of poaching, over-fishing and habitat loss, which, according to a new WWF report, have caused thousands of animal populations to decline by an average of 60 per cent in the last 45 years.

The scale of that loss is almost inconceivable – and yet none of us can pretend we didn’t see it coming. Not least our politicians.

And if you still need convincing of the present government’s hypocrisy on environmental issues, take their latest policy on tree planting. At first glance, this appeared hopeful; promising £10m in funding for street trees, plus £50m worth of carbon credits to help plant “around ten million” more trees in woods.

According to Stuart Goodall, CEO of Confor, an industry body for sustainable forestry, this is a “broadly welcome” move that should encourage more tree planting by spreading awareness of the wider investment opportunity (by buying carbon credits from woodland owners at a minimum guaranteed price, the government is putting more money into the market and could feasibly even make a profit).

Yet around ten million trees over 30 years works out at an annual average of just 167 hectares, when the government’s own aspiration is 6,000 hectares a year. Even accounting for the fact that the money could be used as “top-up” funding for planting and so be spread further, the pledge is still a fraction of what is needed to fully restore our woodland ecosystems, support our industries, and tackle the climate crisis.

Furthermore, without further detail, it is also conceivable that these new woodlands could ultimately be harvested and burned as woody biomass energy – thereby simply releasing any stored carbon back into the atmosphere. When asked for comment on the subject, a Treasury spokesperson simply replied that the “criteria for qualifying woodland will be determined in due course”.

Now none of this is to say that Philip Hammond is as bad as Donald Trump, who has pulled out of the Paris Agreement; nor Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, poised to industrialise the Amazon rainforest. But he is Chancellor of Britain (“one of the most nature depleted countries in the world”, according to the RSPB’s 2016 State of Nature report), and we should be able to do infinitely better. 

We must. For if a wealthy nation cannot even do right by its own small patch of earth, what hope it there for the rest of the planet?