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21 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:05pm

How realistic are the government’s new environmental proposals?

As well as plans for the phasing out of domestic coal fires and the end of fuel and diesel cars, it’s heavily rumoured that the Budget will include the first increase in fuel duty in ten years.

By Stephen Bush

Keep those home fires… off. Coal fires will become a thing of the past by 2023 under proposals unveiled by the government to phase out the domestic burning of coal and untreated wood.

The new government is making the right decisions and setting ambitious targets across a number of green issues – from the phasing out of domestic coal to bringing about the end of fuel and diesel cars. Boris Johnson looks to be finding ways to kill off Heathrow’s third runway with benign neglect. And it’s heavily rumoured that the Budget on 11 March will include the first increase in fuel duty since Labour was last in power – in part because doing so is regarded as a key way to signal the government’s environmental credentials, but also because, as one minister quipped, “there are no taxes left”: between the party’s promises to keep national insurance, VAT and income tax flat or falling and their ambitious rhetoric on spending, what’s left other than fuel duty?

But there are three risks. The first is that it is one thing to promise to do these things and quite another to see off the considerable political opposition they will provoke. The second is that Johnson’s environmental agenda has the same pitfall as his plan to deliver a high-divergence Brexit by the end of this year: the rhetorical ambition isn’t backed by a concomitant commitment to deliver the necessary infrastructure. Just as we are lightyears away from having the necessary infrastructure for checks at British ports, we aren’t, at present, anywhere close to having the required number of charging points for Britain’s motorists to have gone electric by 2035.

The third is that these measures aren’t consequence-free. One of the things that I was particularly struck by during the general election was that everywhere I went outside of England’s great cities, how many new, high-end cars I saw: all heavily leveraged in a market that looks a lot like the United Kingdom’s new sub-prime lending environment. Rhetorically, the government is broadly on the right track in as far as fuel, pollution and cars are concerned and hopefully that rhetoric will be backed up with cash and infrastructure commitments in the Budget. But just because they’re on the right track doesn’t mean the path ahead will be easy.

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