Natalie Bennett: The latest delay to the Environment Bill shows how little this government cares about tackling climate change
When Lehman Brothers went belly-up on September 15, 2008, the global financial system wobbled and there was a serious risk that the cash machines would stop working, UK and global government swung into action.
On October 8, the government announced a £500 billion rescue package. The previous day, October 7, it had announced a Banking Bill, that became the Banking Act the following March. The following year (2010) the European Union, hardly famed for quick action, announced a cap on bankers’ bonuses. We’re still “not as safe as we should and could be” from the threat of a still casino-like, dangerously unstable financial sector that threatens the security of all of us, but there hasn’t been any shortage of action.
Contrast that to the news confirmed this week that the Environment Bill, the long, long-awaited Environment Bill, that started its legislative passage in July 2018, is now going to be delayed at least until the autumn.
As an immediate practical decision, in this moment, that was inevitable, and not necessarily even bad news — for the bill, as Green MP Caroline Lucas has said, is fundamentally flawed. And with the government planning to end this parliamentary session, reportedly in May, there wasn’t time to get it through in time, certainly not for the House of Lords to deliver the many improvements being plotted from all sides, including the government backbenches.
But in the broader context, it shows just how little, despite all the lipservice paid to environmental concerns, the government regards or is prepared to treat the climate emergency and the nature crisis as their urgency demands. It is as if the house is on fire and the dog is frothing at the mouth and convulsing, and the household has decided it’s time to take a few months’ holiday, and deal with these issues when they come back.
Our rivers are open sewers, our land and waters choked with plastics (900,000 tonnes of plastic packaging from our supermarkets alone each year), we’re one of the most nature-depleted nations on Earth, air pollution contributes to some 30,000 premature deaths each year on the government’s own figures, we’re three or four decades away from a “fundamental eradication of soil fertility”, and the government plans to get around to passing its flagship bill to deal with these issue sometime, soonish, when it is convenient.
And then, of course, there’s the climate emergency. The world decided at the 2015 Paris Climate Talks that it would aim to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels — #1pointfivetostayalive if you want to browse the Twittersphere on the subject — and the Environment Bill is supposed to be a major contributor to that. In 2021, six years on.
We are the chair of the COP26 talks that are supposed to, from Glasgow in November, deliver the global plan for that and its is hoped, just hoped, that the Bill will have become law by then.
If nothing else, you’d think that new “Global Britain” (trademark Boris Johnson) might want to be showing appropriate leadership from that position. The key work before the successful Paris Climate Talks was done in many months of hard diplomacy leading up to the final meeting. Our chair Alok Sharma is hardly going to be in a position to put the hard word on other nations when our action is so dilatory.
As for the paired, and equally crucial, Biodiversity COP15 in October, well, we might just about have got the bill through, have finally constituted the Office of Environmental Protection that is supposed to be replacing all those layers of European Union protection we lost on December 31.
We’ll leap into action when the financiers are in trouble, but not when the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat, are in immediate peril. Future Britons are surely going to look back at 2021, with the world consumed by a pandemic linked to environmental destruction, and wonder just what we were thinking, just how sick our political systems, structure and ideology was, that it did not take emergency action.