Was 2017 a turning point for the UK’s environment?

DSC_8630 newAs we entered 2017, the UK was on edge, with the government’s plans for Brexit unclear, and the environmental dimensions of that even more so. While much remains at risk as the year draws to a close, prospects for our environment look brighter than they did 12 months ago.

Crucially, the surprise general election result in June was a significant turning point. Post-election internal polling indicated the Conservative Party hadn’t shown that they cared enough about the environment, with public polls showing that people under 28, the demographic held responsible for the election outcome, put the environment at the top of their concerns. And so the end of the year has seen a flurry of green announcements.

Here are nine reasons why we think 2017 was a good year:

1. The world rallied behind the Paris climate change agreement
When President Trump declared his intention to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement in May, political and business leaders from around the world were quick to denounce the decision. Rather than precipitating a crisis, the rest of the world united.

Despite a desire to sign a trade deal with the US, Theresa May has since emphasised that the UK will diverge from Trump’s climate agenda by heading up efforts to cut carbon emissions and develop clean energy.

2. Michael Gove is no longer a ‘shy green’
Not long after the election in June, the new environment secretary, Michael Gove, set out his view that he is an “environmentalist because of hard calculation as well as the promptings of the heart.” He pledged to put environmental restoration and enhancement first and to tackle specific problems such as marine plastic pollution.

3. The prime minister backed high standards
The environment was conspicuous in its absence from Theresa May’s first Brexit speech in January. But her Florence speech in September emphasised the UK’s ongoing commitment to high standards, stating that “people in Britain do not want shoddy goods, shoddy services, a poor environment.”

4. New government strategies
The eagerly anticipated Clean Growth Strategy marked a sea change in how the government sees climate. It and the new industrial strategy both see clean growth as one of the biggest economic opportunities of our time, reflecting our view that developing a resource efficient, low carbon economy is the best way to raise productivity and help the UK compete in the world.

These first four reasons were mostly about political ambition and the direction of travel. But 2017 wasn’t just about good words. Five tangible changes happened too:

5. Major new policies on plastic pollution
Marine plastic pollution is now high on the political agenda, boosted in part by the BBC’s series Blue Planet II. Notable new commitments include:

  • A ban on microbeads.
  • A consultation on a deposit return scheme in the UK, which followed a commitment by the Scottish Government to introduce one. This followed a longstanding campaign by CPRE and MCS, and this Green Alliance infographic showing that a third of marine litter is plastic bottles.
  • The announcement of a single use plastics tax in the Budget.
  • A consultation on addressing the scandal that producers of plastic pay just ten per cent of the cost of the waste their products cause, with local authorities (and your council tax) picking up the tab.

6. Offshore wind became cheaper than gas
Half a decade ago, offshore wind power was nearly four times the price of the energy produced by gas power plants. UK industrial policy changed this in dramatic fashion and, this year, the latest offshore wind auction cleared at £57.50/MWh, undercutting new gas power plants for the first time. This was the direct result of a strategy that committed to deploying offshore wind at scale – at least 10GW in the early 2020s – subject to a review clause if industry didn’t its cut costs. This ‘commit and review’ pact was something we proposed in 2014.

7. Britain to ban the sale of ivory
Before the 2017 general election, there were reports that the Conservatives had quietly removed the pledge to ban the ivory trade in the UK. But, in October, Michael Gove announced a consultation to end the trade in ivory of any age, with a small number of exemptions.

8. A ban on bee-harming pesticides
A total ban on neonicotinoids, which have now been shown without doubt to harm bees, was supported by Michael Gove. The reversal of the government’s previous position was the result of research concluding that neonicotinoids have contaminated whole landscapes and damaged bee colonies.

9. A new green watchdog
The government has made a welcome commitment to ensuring environmental principles continue to have effect, and has promised to create a strong new watchdog to address the governance gap, which Greener UK had been highlighting for some months. This consultation has to begin soon, as the primary legislation necessary will have to be ready in time for exit day in March 2019.

What’s ahead?
As we look towards 2018 and phase two of the negotiations with the EU, it is vital that the government prioritises continued environmental co-operation; Greener UK’s Brexit Risk Tracker has shown this year how important this is for a variety of policy areas. The Withdrawal Bill still doesn’t provide for full transposition of the environmental acquis, and the delegated powers which could weaken legislation need to be constrained, with a robust parliamentary scrutiny process for the hundreds of statutory instruments to be converted from EU law into domestic law. And the UK and devolved governments will have to work closely together on the environment, where common frameworks will be needed.

We shouldn’t forget that preserving the EU laws that have protected our environment is only the first step. The UK must show that it is ready for the challenge and to innovate in future, not just to protect, but to restore our environment so we can proudly claim to have the world leading policies that give us clean air to breathe, thriving nature and beautiful landscapes and green spaces for all to enjoy.

Photo by Florian Culka.

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