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Political Print: New face, but environmental policy remains a farce

The new secretary of state for net-zero is thought to be greener than her predecessor but this government is setting the bar incredibly low. By David Burrows.

Someone called Coutinho is the new energy security and net-zero secretary. Never heard of them. I Googled the name and the first hit was Philippe Coutinho – the erstwhile silky genius of a footballer who is now looking to ply his trade in a desert somewhere. Maybe he was in the running for the net-zero role too. Who knows?

But it’s Claire Coutinho that’s got the job (having a mini cabinet reshuffle the day before the end of the football transfer window is certainly confusing). And it’s Claire that has the job of ‘keeping the lights on and delivering the UK’s commitment to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050’. She will be 65 by then.

Coutinho’s rise signals the fall of Grant Shapps. “Good riddance to [him],” said Dave Timms, head of political affairs at Friends of the Earth. Fair comment: Shapps has after all promoted new drilling for oil and gas (against the advice of his own climate advisors) and done little else, it seems. “The country needs a serious secretary of state,” said Timms.

Maybe that is Coutinho. Politico suggested she “has distinct shades of green” and is more interested in the technical details of her portfolio than X (formerly Twitter), according to sources. “In her maiden speech, Claire Coutinho described renewables as ‘one of the most remarkable success stories in the UK today’. Perhaps she could persuade the prime minister to build on that success story instead of blocking it,” said Greenpeace UK policy director Doug Parr.

The government seems to be going backwards on environment policy and Rishi Sunak is happy to watch and wave. Can we take anything this government says seriously anymore? It’s like The Thick of It but not funny – and less sweary (unless you sit in the HQ of an environmental NGO from time to time).

X, lies and no escape

Indeed, RSPB made headlines last week for a provocative tweet on the X social media platform. “Liars. @RishiSunak. @michaelgove. @theresecoffey. You said you wouldn’t weaken environmental protections. And yet that’s just what you are doing. You lie, and you lie, and you lie again. And we’ve had enough.” They and others were left fuming following the government’s decision to weaken the legislation on water pollution to allow more housebuilding. RSPB chief executive Beccy Speight has since apologised, but I’ve recently been on calls where similar accusations have been levelled at this government. 

The recent decision not to push on with mandatory food waste reporting for large businesses has baffled almost everyone. Justifying the decision on the grounds of additional cost burdens to businesses is “just a lie” one policy expert told me recently. Five years on from Gove’s resources and waste strategy and there is almost nothing real to show from all those ambitious plans. Oh, some plastic items have been banned. Whoop-de-do.

And yet still the government persists with a message that it is “leading the world” in tackling issues like plastic. Rubbish. It also seems to think the activity on net-zero is coming along quite nicely thank you very much, so long as the party’s sustainability sceptics are happy. If some of the government’s recent press releases were subject to the same scrutiny as businesses face for misleading claims in adverts then they’d fall foul of the rules (Imagine that: a government department fined by the Competition and Markets Authority for greenwashing?). 

A recent announcement on the emissions trading scheme claimed “tighter” limits on carbon emissions yet the government has imposed the highest possible cap it can (albeit still just aligning with net-zero) and is allowing extra allowances. “The UK government has made it cheaper for industry to pollute in Britain compared with the EU by watering down reforms to the carbon market, in the latest sign that the Conservative party is backsliding on its climate agenda,” reported the FT.  

The price of carbon has fallen below £60 per tonne, according to Refinitiv, and dived lower after the government’s announcement in July. In the EU the price is around £90 per tonne (The environmental cost of one tonne of carbon emissions can be double that according to some estimates, with other gases even more costly; different foods also come with varying degrees of greenhouse gas costs). The whole point of a carbon price is for it to increase over time, explained Jess Ralston from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), so the cost of polluting increases. But the government appears to have missed this, she adds.

Philippe Coutinho tends to miss these days too, and I just can’t see his namesake being a (green) hit at DESNZ (the department for energy security and net-zero in case you were wondering). Maybe my glass is half empty but this government is draining the optimism out of everyone. NGOs and experts made the same noises they usually do when a new minister comes in but the emails actually felt tired. A survey last week by Trade Union Prospect showed seven in 10 professionals working in nature-related roles said they were understaffed. “They are telling us that the paring back of expert roles in their teams is leaving them increasingly burnt out,” Prospect senior deputy general secretary Sue Ferns told

Staff at public bodies like Natural England and the Environment Agency were among the 500 professionals polled. Life at Defra, the department for environment, food and rural affairs, seems even worse these days: bullying complaints have rocketed in the last year. In 2022-23, there were 28 complaints made by officials to the department alleging bullying; in 2021-22 there were five and the year before that less than five, according to a Freedom of Information response published by Defra.

The dehumanising department

One Defra official told Civil Service World that ministers “using dehuman[is]ing language, such as referring to civil servants as ‘the blob’ and calling officials who were just trying to do their job ‘activist civil servants’” had created an “atmosphere of intimidation” and “undermined” officials’ work. Brexit has unquestionably taken its toll on the department as officials try to unpick the 85% of legislation that once derived from EU law – and do their day jobs.

The department has also had four secretaries of state in the past four years. The one before that was Michael Gove. But the architect of the ‘green Brexit’, the man who gave Defra power in Whitehall and turned NGOs weak at the knees with his plastic plans was this week accused of breaking eight years of promises not to weaken environmental laws. According to the i, Gove and Thérèse Coffey, Defra’s incumbent secretary of state (and every farmers’ friend), met with NGOs on Thursday last week to try and kiss (with consent) and make up following that RSPB tweet. It didn’t work out. “The government has got all this information from one source, homebuilders, and seems to just be blindly listening to their side of the story without checking the evidence,” said Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts.

Trust in this government, however green we may think ministers are, is at rock bottom. And yet they still won’t admit it. “There’s been a lot of noise over the last few weeks about this government walking away from the environment – but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth,” Coffey burbled recently. “Conservation is literally in our name,” she said.