early 20 years ago, in the 1989 European elections, the Green Party won 14% of the vote. At the time many felt that this heralded the start of the environment becoming a permanent fixture in British politics, but in fact it was something of a high watermark for the green movement, as the economic downturn of the early 90s during the Major government pushed green concerns down the agenda.
The next upsurge came during the mid-2000s (like the late 80s, the tail end of a long period of economic growth overseen by a government with a strong majority), when climate change became a priority across the political spectrum (only five MPs voted against the Climate Change Act). But just as in the early 90s, the 2008 crash and the austerity that followed saw interest wane and environmental policies (such as the CRC energy efficiency scheme for large corporates) scaled back or scrapped.
So, the extent to which the environment has been seen as politically important has always been cyclical, but there is no doubt that we are in something of an upswing at the moment, with Michael Gove the most active and powerful environment secretary since David Miliband in the mid-2000s. But I think there is something unusual about this upswing, which is the sheer range of environmental issues that are ‘live’.
In the late 1980s, climate change was the main issue, and this was also true in the mid-2000s, although household recycling levels were also rising and seen as an important issue. Today though, it is hard to think of an environmental issue that is not getting significant media and political attention.
Air quality concerns are a fixture of the national media and of high-profile legal defeats of the government. Plastic pollution is seen as a moral issue and barely a day goes past without a major corporate announcing measures to cut plastic waste out of their business models. Natural capital is the new buzzword and the prime minister has announced that all infrastructure projects will be judged against their ability to “enhance not degrade” the country’s natural capital.
Meanwhile, the Committee on Climate Change, in its 2018 report to Parliament published at the end of June, warned that the success in phasing out coal and boosting renewables (power sector emissions have fallen 50% in the last five years) is masking failure to decarbonise in other parts of the economy (transport emissions are rising, while those from agriculture and buildings have barely changed since 2012).
The committee’s message is that urgent action is needed across all sectors otherwise the UK will fail to meet its legislated carbon budgets during the 2020s. This has prompted Theresa May to set a target of halving the energy use from new buildings by 2030.
There are a number of factors behind the unprecedented number of environmental issues that are all high profile at once. Brexit and some effective work by green NGOs has pushed the government to come up with some longer-term ambitions on the environment and Michael Gove is a minister who wants to back up words with action. I’d also like to think that there is a slow but steady rise in the awareness of the public at large that environmental issues matter and take time to solve.
My one concern to set against this welcome environmental focus is whether the UK has the institutional capacity to design, implement and enforce the range of new green policies being talked about. For decades we have relied on the EU to do most of the policy thinking and analysis for new green initiatives and between 2006 and 2016 the Defra headcount was cut from 4,000 to under 2,000. At the same time the Environment Agency and local authorities have also had to manage resource cuts in their enforcement systems.
Staying in the European Environment Agency (perfectly possible as non-EU member state) would help us stay connected to European expertise, but I also think government will need help from ACE and EIC members to shape an environmental policy framework that can deliver the clean, sustainable economic growth we all want to see.