Tomorrow, Theresa May will deliver a major speech on the environment, it will be the first keynote environment speech delivered by a British prime minister since Tony Blair did so in 2000. David Cameron might have hugged huskies in the Arctic but, in practice, the environment as a whole was not a top priority for him (although he did address the UN on climate and gave a small speech on energy efficiency). Blair also delivered a major speech specifically on climate in 2004.
So, it’s a big deal, and not a moment too soon. Despite progress in some areas, notably marine protection and climate change, past governments have not done enough, and the current picture is not rosy. The State of Nature report has found that ten per cent of UK wildlife species are at risk of extinction, with 60 per cent in decline. If she is serious about this agenda, Theresa May will commit to ecological restoration, not merely to maintain current (inadequate) protections for the natural environment.
Unfortunately, the announcements that have been trailed so far don’t stretch very far beyond tokenism. Extending the 5p plastic bag charge to all shops is a no-brainer, which Scotland has been doing for a while now; and ruling out a vote on bringing back fox hunting is nice for the foxes but doesn’t help the rest of the animal kingdom. A more significant move this week has been the proposal for a Northern Forest but, even here, the government will only provide £5.7 million of the £500 million needed to achieve the vision. Banning microbeads is another smart move, but falls far short of what’s needed, as they only account for one per cent of ocean plastic pollution.
How to leave our environment in a better state
If this government is to leave our environment in a better state, as it aspires to, the first step is to work collaboratively with devolved administrations to raise environmental standards to ensure no further loss of nature and to enhance air and water quality. This also means ensuring high standards (eg for food production) are not traded away, with transparency and democratic oversight of future trade negotiations. There is extremely inadequate democratic oversight of UK trade deals, a major concern of environmental organisations.
Preventing further degradation is not enough. As the Greener UK coalition sets out in its manifesto, there needs to be an ambitious new Environment Act this parliament to turn around nature’s decline, to mainstream environmental protection and nature’s recovery across government. And laws should be implemented fully: importantly, May should reiterate her environment secretary’s pledge to create a strong, new environment watchdog, with rigorous accountability and enforcement mechanisms, including effective sanctions and remedies.
This is a key test of Brexit
The #GreenBrexit hashtag has become a favourite of Defra in recent weeks. A ‘Green Brexit’ means including continuing environmental co-operation as a priority for phase two of the negotiations with the EU. It also means – crucially – being greener than the UK has been as an EU member state.
Environmental progress is a key test of Brexit’s success, particularly on the following:
- Agriculture policy – backing the environment secretary’s commitment last week to refocus agricultural subsidies on environmental enhancement with a full budget. There will also need to be adequate regulation to ensure that all farming – not just ‘green’ farming – is environmentally sensitive.
- Fisheries policy – to ensure discards end, catches are well within sustainable limits and marine protected areas are not damaged.
- Ancient woodland – following through on the vitally important manifesto commitment to protect ancient woodland, in a way which makes a real difference on the ground.
- Future protections – making sure there is watertight conversion of environmental policy from EU to domestic law.
How the UK is viewed in the world
Finally, the prime minister should use her speech to set out an ambition for the UK to be an environmental leader and challenge other world leaders to put the environment at the heart of policy. Given alarming global declines in biodiversity, we need a different level of political response on this issue than we have seen up to now (building on the strong engagement by heads of government on climate change which led to the 2015 Paris Agreement). There are opportunities for the UK to set out its vision through post-Brexit trade policies that have the environment at their heart. But we can also provide wider leadership on climate and beyond, eg through the Commonwealth and the UK’s Overseas Territories (the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in April is an opportunity for the UK to set out its vision for global environmental leadership). Specifically, the Convention on Biological Diversity process should set new goals for tackling biodiversity loss.
The phrase ‘world-leading’ pops up a lot in the UK government’s environmental communications, but this must be more than a rhetorical flourish. The UK needs to show that clean and healthy growth, and trade in low carbon technology and services, are central to Britain’s economic resilience this century. The government should commit to policies that will enable the UK to meet its legally binding carbon budgets and end illegal levels of air pollution. And delivering the new housing and other infrastructure the country needs should not be in opposition to protecting the countryside and the wider environment.
Environmentalism is central to Britain’s success this century. It is not a niche issue. Rather, our prosperity and security as a nation, and the health and well-being of the British people, are intimately bound up with sound environmental policies. While action on climate change is now widely seen as essential to national security and economic prosperity, the challenge for the prime minister tomorrow is to show she has extended this understanding to other parts of the environmental agenda.
[Image: PM at LGBT+ reception by Number 10 from Flickr Creative Commons]