The government must lead by example if it’s to have any leverage to encourage other countries to increase their ambition at the global climate summit this year.
A forest larger than Birmingham will be planted over the next five years, using £640 million of government funding pledged yesterday by chancellor Rishi Sunak.
Sunak promised to “protect, restore and expand” peatbogs and woodlands, and capture carbon through the new Nature for Climate fund. Around 30,000 hectares of trees would be planted, and 35,000 hectares of peatland are to be restored, he said.
Joan Edwards, director of public affairs and marine conservation at the Wildlife Trusts, said that the move recognised that the climate and nature emergencies needed to be solved together.
“The Nature for Climate fund could help restore vital habitats, such as peatlands and saltmarshes, which have huge potential to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as well as helping nature to recover.”
But Rebecca Newsom, head of politics at Greenpeace UK, said that the new nature fund was just a fraction of what was needed to get the UK on track to delivering net zero before it hosts major UN climate talks in Glasgow in November.
Newsom argued: “The government must lead by example if it’s to have any leverage to encourage other countries to increase their ambition at the global climate summit this year."
Chaitanya Kumar, head of climate and energy at the Green Alliance, pointed out that 35,000 hectares of peat represented only one per cent of the UK’s peatlands, and nowhere near the 50 per cent of upland peat and 25 per cent of lowland peat that government advisors the Committee on Climate Change had recommended needed restoring.
The chancellor also continued the freeze in fuel duty for a tenth year. Claire Haigh, the chief executive of Greener Journeys, said: “We are extremely disappointed that the chancellor missed this golden opportunity to end the freeze in fuel duty, especially given the sharp drop in the price of oil.
"As hosts of this year’s COP26 UN Climate Summit, the UK must show leadership on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Ending the freeze in fuel duty would have sent a clear signal that the UK is serious about meeting its net zero target."
Mike Childs, head of policy at Friends of the Earth, said: “This Budget contains a massive road-building programme which completely destroys any pretence of UK government leadership ahead of this years’ crucial climate summit.
“Funding for cleaner cars, EV charging, action on plastics and more trees are just a few green sprinklings on a truly awful budget.
“By freezing fuel duty yet again, and promising 4000 miles of new roads, the chancellor has shown that his priorities are not the environment.
“This Budget will wreck the countryside with new roads, leave Britain choking on filthy air, and further fuel the climate crisis. When it comes to fixing our broken planet, this chancellor certainly isn’t getting it done.”
Chaitanya Kumar, head of climate and energy at Green Alliance, said: “There is only so long we can delay the unfreezing of the fuel duty escalator.
"Since 2011, this policy decision has produced an extra 4.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions, 12,000 tonnes of NOx emissions from additional traffic on the roads, and has cost Treasury £46 billion in lost revenue.
"If the government is going to deliver on its climate goals, it needs to take political decisions that are a lot more difficult than raising fuel duty. We hope in future budgets, chancellors show more political courage by taxing polluting fuels and making cleaner forms of transport cheaper."
"Transport is the most polluting sector in the UK economy. The government’s nine-year freeze in fuel duty has caused an extra five million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging people to abandon public transport in favour of their cars. It has also been damaging for public transport networks leading to 5% more traffic, 250 million fewer bus journeys and 75 million fewer rail journeys.”
Campaigners also attacked Sunak’s pledge for £27 billion investment in major roads and motorways to pay for over twenty connections to ports and airports, over 100 junctions, and 4,000 miles of new road.
The amount was more than fifty times the investment in electric vehicle charging infrastructure, which brought the government’s commitment to achieving net zero carbon into doubt, Kumar said.
Crispin Truman, chief executive of CPRE, the countryside charity, said: "It is disappointing that the government has not delivered on its much-touted ‘greenest Budget ever'. The announcement of the £27 billion worth of tarmac, and the continued fuel duty freeze, clearly undermine the government’s claim to be tackling the climate emergency.
"This sort of investment will only serve to encourage more people into cars instead of using sustainable and reliable public transport, where significant investment is sorely needed. Road investment means more carbon emissions fuelling the climate crisis and poorer air quality choking our cities, towns and rural communities."
Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, said: “It is astonishing that the chancellor can say with one breath that this government are committed to leaving the environment in a better state than it found it, and then announce a huge spend on 4,000 miles of new roads. The disconnect is jaw-dropping.”
Catherine Early is a freelance environmental journalist and chief reporter for the Ecologist. She can be found tweeting at @Cat_Early76. Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist.