The election of the first Conservative majority administration for a generation opened a new chapter for UK environmental policy. Would David Cameron, who once asked Britain to ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’, provide strong leadership on green issues, or would his Government retreat to a depressing grey zone, with green priorities consigned to the distant margins?
On day zero of the new Government, there were early grounds for hope. The coalition Government had made a bold pledge for this to be ‘the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than that in which we found it’. This was backed up in the Conservative manifesto with commitments to develop a 25-year plan to protect nature, and to do more to protect the seas around both the UK and our Overseas Territories.
Climate Secretary Amber Rudd believes that climate change is real, and wants the UK to play a leading role in setting strong international carbon targets when the nations of the world gather in Paris this December. David Cameron has publicly committed himself to this laudable aim.
Disappointingly, after its first 100 days, there are profound concerns about the Government’s direction, and real doubts about how seriously it takes its environmental commitments.
This led WWF, along with nine other major organisations, to write to the Prime Minister (PDF) and express our concern that the Government is dragging its heels – and in some cases moving in the wrong direction entirely.
In the past three months the Government has scrapped or watered down a host of green policies. And there have been no positive new measures introduced to restore the health of our environment or grow the low carbon economy. This matters – because a healthy environment underpins a stronger economy and provides healthier and happier lives for everyone.
Ministers have scrapped support for some renewable energy technologies and abolished tax exemptions for low carbon vehicles which have existed for over a decade. One measure, removing subsidies for onshore wind, was in the Conservative manifesto, but we’ve yet to see what the Government will do to replace this cheap and clean form of energy.
The creation of the Green Investment Bank was one of the positive achievements of the last Conservative-led Government. Part-privatising it may allow the GIB to raise more private capital, but it’s vital that it retains a strong remit to promote innovation in green technologies, and doesn’t become just another bank. The now-abandoned green deal helped people make their homes and offices more energy-efficient, so it is sad to see it bite the dust, with no replacement scheme in place.
None of the above demonstrates wise policy-making when governments around the world are ramping up, not watering down, the push for clean energy and green growth, and when the Government here is committed to doing the same. Elsewhere in the UK, Wales has led the way with its ‘Future Generations Act’, binding the Welsh Government and public sector to consider the impact on the environment and future generations in all their operations.
We know this is a vital year for action on climate change and sustainable development. So after a worrying first 100 days, now would be the perfect moment for a re-think. Happily, there is time and space to do so: in the next 100 or so days, there are some conspicuous opportunities for Ministers to restore a sense of vision and hope.
As we approach the Paris climate negotiations, a strong domestic announcement – for example a commitment that coal power will be phased out within the next 10 years – could bolster our international leverage and our bargaining power. President Obama has recently shown what leadership in this arena looks like, and his Clean Power Plan to move the US definitively away from coal has made him a hero to many.
The Government has said it will support the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (PDF), with their vision of proper management of the environment at the heart of economic and social policy worldwide. The formal adoption of the goals in New York this September presents a perfect platform for the Prime Minister to reaffirm his commitment for a strong outcome at the climate conference in Paris later this year, and to outline specific measures to place the sustainable management of the UK’s natural capital at the heart of national policymaking. As the Government begins to develop its 25 year plan for nature – a welcome initiative – it can ensure that enhancing natural capital is a cornerstone of that too.
The Prime Minister won plaudits recently by promising that the UK will do more to help fight illegal wildlife trafficking around the world, an area on which the Conservative-led coalition also provided strong leadership. Here’s an opportunity to promote sustainable development that gives people an incentive to look after, not plunder, local forests, oceans and wildlife.
The best thing the UK could do now to make the country and indeed the world greener and more prosperous would be to take strong action to decarbonise our economy and lead a green technology revolution. I suspect – having with colleagues from other charities recently met the Prime Minister and heard him talk, sincerely, about his desire to lead on climate change – that he’d like to see this happen. I hope the increasingly prominent George Osborne and his Treasury colleagues feel the same.
WWF will continue to promote economic policies which appreciate the natural world not as an afterthought, but as a precious and fragile resource that we abuse at our peril.