March 27 saw UK environment secretary Michael Gove give the green light to a deposit return scheme in England, which will provide a small cash sum for each bottle or can that consumers return for recycling. While a welcome move, its important to keep in mind that this is the first significant tangible policy announcement since January’s year-late publication of the 25 Year Environment Plan.
Laying out the government’s long-term goals for preserving and improving the environment, the plan contains a series of flagship pledges intended to boost the government’s green credentials. However, a scratch beneath the eye-catching surface three months on reveals a fundamental lack of ambition, funding, and legislative substance, strongly questioning whether the government is genuinely serious about the environment.
Front and centre is the pledge to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042 – yet what constitutes ‘avoidable’ waste has still not been clearly defined, leaving plenty of room to shirk responsibilities. The bottle deposit return scheme marks meaningful progress in this area, as does the recent commitment to ambitious EU recycling targets, but the government needs to call for an end to single-use plastics and bring forward its 2042 target for it to be anything other than ‘utterly unambitious’.
With transport now the leading cause of emissions in the UK, the promise to ban the sale of fossil fuel powered cars by 2042 also lacks both urgency and detail, as does the commitment to plant more than 50 million trees in a ‘Northern Forest’ between Liverpool and Hull in the same timeframe. Such grand numbers may seem impressive, but in the last five years India has planted this many trees in just 12 hours - twice. These distant, vague targets, placed far beyond the political careers of the politicians championing them, do not adequately address the scale of action required to reduce UK emissions and must be brought forward. Instead, the recent dumping of a scrappage scheme for highly polluting cars suggests that the targets are more likely to be pushed back.
Key omissions from the plan shine a light on the selectivity of the government’s environmental vision. For example, how can the promise to protect and improve water quality be compatible with government support for fracking, finally set to commence in England next month? On agriculture, both Gove and the Committee on Climate Change have hailed Brexit as an opportunity to improve on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which does not directly target the reduction of harmful methane emissions from animal agriculture. However, the 25 Year Environment Plan doesn’t mention this key driver of UK emissions either, and nor has Gove in the three months since.
These omissions mirror a worrying broader trend in the Conservatives’ approach to climate protection. Power and waste sectors aside, the UK has seen a mere 1% reduction in emissions since 2012. System-wide action is desperately needed if we are to achieve our long-term Paris Agreement goals and protect the environment for future generations. The government can’t keep focusing on easy wins and sweeping the politically inconvenient issues under the rug.
Even the areas the government has made noise about are still severely lacking actionable policies on which they can be judged. The announcement of the bottle deposit return scheme came as a surprise given that it was not backed in the 25 Year Environment Plan, despite vocal support from Gove in October. The implementation of the policy is subject to a consultation, and we should be wary of the environment secretary flip-flopping again by backing a toothless voluntary scheme. In contrast, the pledge to extend the highly effective 5p carrier bag charge to small retailers was one of the very few short-term policies mentioned in the plan, but such legislation has not yet materialised.
Nor have funding commitments. Since the plan’s publication, the government has set aside only £15.7m in extra funding – less than a penny per person per year. Meanwhile, budget cuts have forced a key agency tasked with tackling plastic waste to cut 10% of its staff. Combined with the government’s recent rejection of a ‘latte levy’ on disposable cups, current evidence doesn’t suggest that the government will back up its 25-year plans with meaningful immediate action.
Of course, it may be unfair to criticise the government too harshly for what was always intended to be a long-term strategy. Yet, given that the plan fails to provide even a legal framework with which to hold the government’s targets to account, it would be foolish to lavish praise prematurely. Imminent shorter-term strategies concerning waste, air, the bioeconomy, and transport decarbonisation will give us a clearer idea of where Gove’s loyalties truly lie. Until then, the jury’s out.
If you would like to take action, you can email Michael Gove at [email protected] asking him to back the plan’s rhetoric up with actionable legislation and funding.
To make your voice heard on the future of UK agricultural policy, provide your views on this government consultation. If you don’t have time to respond to the full consultation, you can just email [email protected] with either a personalised message, or the short message below:
Methane from animal agriculture is a key driver of global greenhouse gas emissions. I urge DEFRA to heed the Committee on Climate Change’s advice to improve on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy by directly targeting the reduction of methane emissions from animal agriculture.