Government's Economic Recovery Council Packed with Big Polluters, Campaigners Say

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Environmental groups have criticised the government’s new economic recovery council for prioritising fossil fuel intensive firms over greener business advocates and disruptive startups.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson chaired the first meeting of the Build Back Better Council on Monday, an invite-only group of 30 large companies tasked with helping the country bounce back from the economic turmoil of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite stating that the council would bring together “a broad range of business leaders from across the whole British economy”, it has little representation from green business or industry beyond wind turbine manufacturer Siemens and water firm Severn Trent.

By contrast, the advisory body includes the boss of oil giant BP, as well as many companies whose products and services rely heavily on fossil fuels including the operator of the UK’s largest airport Heathrow, airline British Airways, car manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover and the North Sea-focused oil and gas engineering firm Wood.

Other names on the council represent companies in sectors such as pharmaceuticals and chemicals (GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson Matthew), finance (HSBC, BlackRock, Legal & General) engineering and development (Arup, Land Securities Group) and retail (John Lewis).

Green recovery in doubt

Government promises to “build back greener” and to kickstart a “green industrial revolution” were already in question after revelations that ministerial meetings with oil and gas companies in the first months of the pandemic far outnumbered those with renewable energy producers.

Some of the council’s members have recently set emissions-reduction targets, although these have not been without criticism. BP, for example, last year pledged to become “net zero” by 2050 but analysis suggests its targets “fall far short” of what is required to achieve this. The CEO of US investment firm Blackrock, also represented on the council, recently stressed that “climate risk is investment risk” but still owns $85 billion worth of coal investments.

And, despite the government saying the council will enable the UK’s “entrepreneurs to scale their businesses”, it does not have any representatives from smaller firms or startups. It does, however, include the boss of the Business Growth Fund, which invests in UK SMEs.

Nick Molho, executive director of green business alliance the Aldersgate Group, said business would play a crucial role in meeting the UK’s climate targets and to reverse the decline of the natural environment. But to enable this, the government must urgently publish its net zero strategy and put in place policy and regulatory frameworks to support it, he said.

He urged the council to engage with all key areas of the economy where rapid – and often challenging – emissions cuts are required. “SMEs play an important role as well, and ultimately, government will need to put in place a comprehensive package of policies that supports private investment in low-carbon infrastructure and business models over the long-term.”

Other green organisations expressed concerns about the council’s membership.

Greenpeace UK’s executive director John Sauven said the UK could not spur on a green recovery by relying on the same industries that are fuelling climate change and environmental destruction.

“Boris Johnson’s Build Back Better Council looks more like a polluters’ club,” he said. “It’s packed with some of Britain’s most polluting industries and investors, and green leadership is conspicuous by its absence. It’s high time the government stopped favouring the usual vested interests and gave its full support to the businesses building a cleaner, healthier, safer future.”

Connor Schwartz, climate lead at Friends of the Earth, agreed, saying that, instead of listening to fossil fuel companies and airports, “the government should turn their ear to the majority of the public who want climate change prioritised in the economic recovery to coronavirus. A great start would be scrapping the £27bn still earmarked for roads, multiplying investment in green technologies, and creating good green jobs in every corner of the country.”

Image credit: Bidgee/Wikimedia/CC BY 3.0

Isabella Kaminski is a UK-based freelance journalist specialising in the environment and climate change.

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