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Green-glossing and backpedalling: two weeks in British Government

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Helen Salvin, associate director at The PHA Group, reflects on the reputational risks that UK politicians are facing by constantly changing their minds on green policies.

  • Both Labour and the Tory party appear to be in a ‘race to the bottom’ when it comes to the green agenda.
  • While it may be politically expedient to postpone controversial environmental policies in the short term, eventually, progress will need to be made. 
  • It may not be in the interest of either party to scrap the green agenda on the path to power. 

Both Labour and the Tory party appear to be in a ‘race to the bottom’ when it comes to the green agenda. The government’s net zero policy is becoming more unclear by the day: pledging to ‘Build Back Greener’, but willing to leverage a slower net zero roadmap to retain power.    

From scrapping deposit return schemes and green subsidies to reversing the ban on new petrol cars and slowing the adoption of renewables, several net zero policies desperately need reputational rehabilitation.    

Backtracking and delays

Spooked by the by-elections, Starmer rowed back on supporting ULEZ expansion — a policy which has successfully reduced nitrogen dioxide levels in central London by 46%. Meanwhile, Sunak is signalling a pushback on the 2030 sales ban on new petrol and diesel cars.   

And if that wasn’t enough, last week Sunak approved more than 100 new oil and gas projects in a bid to reduce Britain’s reliance on ‘foreign dictators’. The two carbon capture and storage schemes have been labelled an attempt to ‘green gloss’ the move.    

Furthermore, just as the world marked International Plastic Overshoot Day — the point at which we can no longer manage the plastic waste produced that year — the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced the delay of both its extended producer responsibility scheme and its food waste reporting mandate. 

The decision by DEFRA to delay the rollout of two critical environmental waste policies will have left many disappointed by the Government’s inability to tackle critical waste management issues, especially with the UK recycling rate for household waste stagnating at 44.6%. 

We see that a policy of delay rather than action has seemingly gripped Whitehall. While it may be politically expedient to postpone controversial environmental policies in the short term, eventually, progress will need to be made. 

Government needs to lead by example

We can’t underestimate the scale of the task. Net zero presents the biggest behaviour change challenge in living memory, but consistency and authenticity in both words and actions are key. Consumers won’t feel incentivised if their government isn’t sticking to the script.  

Similarly, business leaders won’t feel confident to invest in the critical infrastructure changes needed without a clear commitment and strategy from the Government. Already, businesses that were preparing for the original timetable for EPR or DRS may be facing additional costs as a result of the delay. This lost trust will be difficult to regain. 

Last year, the German Government launched an ‘energy change’ campaign, which set out to educate consumers about the need to become more energy independent, alongside tips on how to reduce costs during the energy crisis. It was a simple yet effective approach. Two months after the campaign launched, Germany’s gas consumption was 20-37% lower than at similar points in previous years.   

The UK Government would do well to follow Germany’s lead because our time will be judged by how we handle this crisis – that includes restoring people’s trust in net zero pledges and improving consumer education to get people on board.  

Messaging needs to be consistent

Rosebank and recent permits are said to be ‘entirely consistent’ with Westminster’s net zero strategy, but ultimately the updated plans are creating more confusion amongst consumers, when we should be taking steps to shift attitudes and influence meaningful action. 

It’s a simple case of remembering the PR basics – get the message right, deliver it in the right places, and ensure it is grounded in insights. Currently, the message changes week on week, jeopardising the country’s roadmap to net zero and creating climate scepticism at a time when consumer support is urgently needed.  

It is worth noting that had the 893 voters who backed the Green Party in the Uxbridge by-election instead supported the Labour candidate; Labour would have won the constituency. So, it would appear that both Labour and the Tories have learnt the wrong lessons from the by-election results, and it may not be in the interest of either party to scrap the green agenda on the path to power. 

The opinions of guest authors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of SG Voice.

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