The new cabinet: climate friends or foes?

Shock appointments of Theresa Villiers as Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Andrea Leadsom as Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, present a significant risk to the long-awaited Environment Bill. With this concern in mind, we ask how will these changes at the top of government influence affect policy on climate change and the environment?

Who is Theresa Villiers?

The MP for Chipping Barnet since 2005, former cabinet minister and new Environment Secretary brings considerable experience to the table, but the jury is still out when it comes to her suitability for this role.

Theresa Villers’ views and past voting record on environmental issues is mixed. On the plus side, she and many members of Johnson’s new cabinet are strongly opposed to Heathrow expansion. And on farming policy, Philip Case reports in Farmers’ Weekly that she is “a strong advocate of animal welfare”.

However, there are considerable shortcomings when a closer look is taken at her voting history regarding measures to prevent climate change. For example, in May 2016, she voted against reducing the permitted CO2 emission rate for new homes. A few years earlier, in June 2013, Villiers also voted against allowing emission limits to be set for the amount of CO2 (or other greenhouse gases) produced per unit of electricity generated. And perhaps even more alarmingly, just eight months earlier, she also voted against requiring the UK Green Investment Bank to explicitly act in support of the target of reducing UK carbon emissions to 20% of 1990 levels by 2050.

Furthermore, and most controversially, Villiers also holds a clear track record for voting against greater regulation of hydraulic fracking to extract shale gas.

Clearly, the cause for concern surrounding her appointment is understandable, especially when you consider that the long-awaited Environment Bill, drafted by Michael Gove last year, will be presented to the House of Commons later this year. Theresa Villiers will need to provide reassurances to those committed to fighting climate change that the bill is safe in her hands and won’t be cut down to a mere shadow of its original form.

Here comes Andrea Leadsom

The new Energy Secretary has divided opinion with her policy positions on climate change before.

Previously Energy Minister in 2015, Leadsom controversially slashed tariffs for onshore wind farms and, according to James Murray of BusinessGreen, “infamously asked her officials whether climate change was real”.

We all hope her opinions have changed since then, and her recent call on the government to declare a climate emergency and create a Cabinet Sub-Committee dedicated to delivering the transition to net-zero emissions suggests that may well be the case. Upon the announcement of her appointment, Ms Leadsom said that “tackling the vital issue of climate change” was firmly on her agenda.

Slowing down climate action?

Alongside Leadsom and Villiers, many other members of the cabinet will be influential in setting the direction of environment and climate change policy in the years to come. At the very top of government, the positions of the PM Boris Johnson and his new Chancellor Sajid Javid will be highly influential in determining our progress towards net-zero emissions, and the financial support available for both the farming and agriculture community, as well as the energy and renewable sector.

Some fear that a number of new cabinet ministers such as Liz Truss and Jacob Rees-Mogg will be reluctant to support any state intervention on climate policy. Rees-Mogg, for example, has gone on record arguing for the abolition of environmental protections: “we could say, if it’s good enough in India, it’s good enough for here.”

And in addition to Truss and Rees-Mogg, the new Transport Secretary Grant Shapps also has a poor history when it comes to green credentials. He once warned of blackouts if the UK phased out coal power, based purely on an inaccurate report produced by a Tufton Street libertarian think tank.

The implications?

The implications of this new cabinet are difficult to predict due to the mixed voting records of Johnson’s new team. Opinion is certainly divided, especially regarding the future of the Environment Bill which could represent a great step forward for the UK towards net zero. The time is now for pressure on government and the new cabinet to deliver the bill in its strongest form. Whether the new appointees are climate friends or foes is yet to be determined; we hope that as the bill takes shape under Villiers’ leadership, she proves to be the former.

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