George Eustice's department is only now working on a plan to hit net zero by 2050. Photograph: Barcroft Media/Getty Images George Eustice's department is only now working on a plan to hit net zero by 2050. Photograph: Barcroft Media/Getty Images

‘Dither, delay and excuses’: DEFRA lacks plan to meet net zero

A leaked memo has confirmed DEFRA has still not agreed how it will help deliver net zero by 2050, after the prime minister ordered departments to develop strategies last year.

“DEFRA is currently not on track to deliver against its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets” for the fourth, fifth and sixth carbon budgets, it states, a period spanning 2023-37. Furthermore, the department “does not have an agreed policy pipeline that allows us to meet them”, and subsequent climate goals, says the memo.

First leaked to the Times and also seen by ENDS, it says that the absence of policy presents “significant reputational risks” to the department. DEFRA has therefore responded by establishing a so-called “tiger team” of civil servants to resolve the policy gap.

The group of up to ten officials are being convened for up to five months to develop DEFRA’s part of the Net Zero Strategy, which will lay out how the government plans to meet its carbon commitments over the next three decades. They will identify “barriers and challenges” to delivering on the government’s ambitions, playing “a crucial role in helping the department get to track to net zero”.

“The review will make use of the most up-to-date knowledge on how to implement solutions, including understanding what the best delivery levers are to drive behavioural and cultural change given how important that is to decarbonising DEFRA’s sectors (from tax and regulation to private finance),” it states. It will specifically address agriculture, waste, wastewater, peat, forestry and ‘blue carbon’ – the carbon stored in coastal and marine ecosystems. 

DEFRA has confirmed that the work is underway.

The National Farmers Union published its own plan for British agriculture to reach net zero by 2040 back in September 2019. It relied largely on combining bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, alongside improvements to efficiency and storing more carbon in soils.

Despite 20 months passing since then, a comparable strategy has yet to emerge from Whitehall.

“Yet more Tory failure to take the climate crisis seriously. We need urgent action, not dither, delay and excuses,” shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard tweeted in response.

The NFU made no reference to limiting the production or consumption of red meat and dairy products, an issue that the prime minister himself identified as too politically sensitive to address through a new carbon tax. But rejecting the Climate Change Committee’s recommendations to act on meat and dairy would tie its hands, leaving it with fewer options to cut emissions that are also harder to deliver.

“It is astonishing if it’s true that the department many would consider central to tackling our climate and nature emergencies has no plan for delivering its part in government targets on climate. Nature can be restored with so many benefits, not just on carbon and biodiversity but for peoples’ wellbeing, air pollution and flood protection. There is a willing collaborator with the NFU. Clearly DEFRA needs some leadership from the top, which it seems not to be getting,” said Doug Parr, policy director for Greenpeace UK.

Such comments will add pressure on George Eustice, who is said to have caught the ire of Carrie Symonds, Boris Johnson’s fiancée, former Tory communications director and alleged power behind the throne. Being from a farming family himself, it is rumoured that Symonds believes Eustice is too close to agricultural interests. 

Veteran environmentalist Tom Burke, the chair of think tank E3G, said that there are systemic problems behind DEFRA’s failure to come up with its own strategy for net zero.

It has “always been an agriculture department with an environmental annex, it has never been a proper environment department,” he told ENDS, comparing it to the 1997-2001 Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which held far more power in Whitehall.

“DEFRA has simply failed across the board in its duty to protect the environment,” he said, citing Natural England being cut to the bone and the National Audit Office finding that the department has no clear plan for meeting its long-term ambitions.

At the same time, addressing agricultural emissions is far knottier than dealing with the power sector, for instance, where a small number of people make big decisions. In farming, there are “lots of decision makers that have to make lots of small decisions. If DEFRA isn’t on the job, it is completely failing to give a lead and discharge its responsibilities under the Climate Change Act,” said Burke.

DEFRA said that it would not comment on a leak, but added that it is already taking action towards hitting net zero by 2050, “from our flagship Environment Bill to world-leading agricultural reforms”.

The Climate Change Committee will be publishing its own assessment of the department’s progress next month.

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