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What does George Osborne’s Spending Review mean for the environment?

 

Following yesterday’s Comprehensive Spending Review announcement by the Chancellor George Osborne, we now know the shape and scale of Government spending up to 2020 – the year of the next UK General Election.  We knew from the rhetoric in advance, from the Conservative General Election manifesto, and from the pressure on Cabinet Ministers to come up with hefty cuts to departmental budgets, that this review would herald further belt-tightening.  But what does it mean for the things we work on and care about?

Houses of Parliament © Treye Rice / FlickrHouses of Parliament © Treye Rice / Flickr

First, the good news.  Among the handful of protected budgets is the International Aid budget, primarily channelled through the Department for International Development (DFID). Late in the last Parliament, a Bill was passed enshrining in law the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on international aid.  The strong UK leadership on this issue matters because it is right to support poorer countries in their development, but it matters for the global environment too.  Development programmes, policies and funding can have positive or negative impacts on the environment – and poverty and inequality cannot be addressed unless we also tackle local and global environmental challenges.

We will continue to press government to ensure the work it does – and the money it spends – helps deliver on all of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed at the United Nations in September, in full and across departments.  In this context, we were disappointed to see that the new DFID Aid Strategy, just launched, does not prioritise the SDGs and, while it does respond to climate change, does not recognise the role of the environment in underpinning social and economic development.

Elsewhere, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) face cuts to their resource budgets of 15% and 22% respectively.  These come on top of reductions of 30% for Defra during the last Parliament, though DECC generally fared better in 2010-15.

Cuts on this scale are a major challenge for departments that must already do much with relatively limited resources.  The Prime Minister has not, since the General Election, repeated his 2010 assertion that he wants to lead the ‘greenest government ever’.  Perhaps that was an understandable decision on his part, as Defra and DECC will face a far greater challenge in making that happen with significantly less money at their disposal.

But despite this caution in rhetoric, the Government does have a pretty wide range of environmental and climate change commitments to deliver.

I suspect most of you did not spend last April perusing the Conservative General Election manifesto.  However, if you did you will have seen that it promised, among other things, stronger protections for natural landscapes, a completed network of UK Marine Conservation Zones, a new 25 year plan for biodiversity, action on the illegal wildlife trade, insulation of a million more homes during the current Parliament, start-up funding for promising renewable technologies and ongoing support for the Climate Change Act.

In delivering that long list of policies – and others – money isn’t everything.  But it certainly helps, and when it is in shorter supply, achieving environmental goals becomes more challenging.  So the cuts beg questions that Government Ministers need to answer.  How will a depleted Defra have the muscle within Whitehall to stand up for our natural world, at a time when 60% of UK species are in decline?  How will a diminished DECC accelerate the essential transition to a low-carbon economy?  And how can the UK lead internationally (which we need to, given the crisis for biodiversity highlighted by our ‘Living Planet’ and ‘Living Blue Planet’ reports) if we send the message that spending on the environment is first in line for cuts?

I suspect part of the Government’s answer will be to point to what it is already doing, and there are indeed things to welcome.  Ministers have embarked on the process of drawing up the 25 year plan for biodiversity – now styled as a broader 25 year plan for nature – though it remains to be seen how strong and ambitious it will be.  On energy policy, Secretary of State Amber Rudd confirmed the phase-out of coal-fired power stations, which is great news, and the Government remains strong on the need for an ambitious climate change deal at the imminent Paris Conference.  And some money has been made available – an allocation of £5.8 billion to help developing countries protect themselves against the impacts of climate change (mentioned by Mr Osborne in his statement yesterday) and a more modest, but still welcome, extra £5 million through round two of the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund.

But the fact remains that Government money – in combination with steadfast policy commitment and appropriate regulation – will be needed to translate that manifesto wish-list into action.  Given that we know that money is in shorter supply, Ministers also need to harness the private sector to help them deliver their policies – but to do that, they must put in place the right signals, and framework, to support business innovation.

The environment is worth the investment of time, resources and political will not just because it matters in its own right that we protect wildlife and habitats, and do not leave dangerous climate change as a legacy for future generations, but also because it makes economic sense to do so.  A robust and well-supported low carbon economy and thriving natural systems will underpin sustainable long-term growth – something any Chancellor would wish for.

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