David Cameron’s legacy: ‘greenest government ever’ or ‘lukewarm at best’?
One of the most seismic political upheavals in modern British political history takes yet another twist today (13 July) as Prime Minister David Cameron steps down after six years in power. As he prepares to take part in his final Prime Minister's Questions this lunchtime, edie takes a look at his environmental legacy and the green outlook for his successor Theresa May.
When all is said and done, David Cameron’s position as an environmental champion will be shadowed with doubt. Despite attempts to stabilise the economy following the global financial crash in 2008, he will almost certainly go down in the annals as the man who gambled with the country’s future and lost its place in the European Union (EU).
But what of the environmental record of a PM who once infamously vowed to take leadership of the “Greenest Government ever”? As with the rest of his tenure, Cameron’s Government took “difficult decisions” when it came to the environmental sphere. But did his actions match his bold rhetoric, or do the policies lie in tatters along with his political career?
Despite an initial defence of “necessary” green subsidies on energy bills to fund renewables as a vital way to “balance the UK’s energy mix”, David Cameron’s recent energy policy has been largely brittle to say the least.
Since the 2015 general election, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd announced the RO scheme would be closed to new onshore wind projects from 1 April 2016, claiming that the Government wanted to help technologies stand on their own two feet, rather than encourage them to rely on public subsidies.
Despite a record-breaking year both globally and nationally, the UK’s renewables sector has suffered from a “Jenga approach” to green policy that has seen Feed-in Tariffs (FiTs) slashed and government incentives scrapped.
Energy ministers have underlined the Government’s prioritisation of nuclear energy ahead of other technologies due to its comparatively low-cost to the UK taxpayer.
More recently, Rudd told MPs that the Government’s next three auctions under the CfD scheme will primarily be aimed at offshore wind, leaving major developers and investors more convinced that the UK is serious about supporting wind power, but less so about the likes of solar PV, biomass and onshore wind.
The UK Government has provided a much-needed confidence boost for the green economy by approving the Fifth Carbon Budget, taking heed of ambitious proposals from MPs to limit the annual emissions to 57% below 1990 levels by the year 2032.
Green businesses and industry groups have wholeheartedly welcomed the UK Government’s adoption of ambitious recommendations for the Budget, claiming it shows signs of “much needed clarity” after the fallout from Brexit.
However, recent reports have outlined that leaving the EU will put the UK’s Climate Change Act and subsequent carbon budgets in danger.
The Conservative Government has faced widespread criticism for failing to protect communities and businesses at risk of flooding.
Amidst the wettest winter ever in 2014, the Government announced a £2.3bn capital investment package to upgrade Britain’s flood defences.
Environment Minister Stewart recently told MPs that he was confident the Government will reach its target of protecting 300,000 properties. However, concerns have been voiced over this figure which is allegedly based on an “inherently optimistic forecast” that assumes “optimal efficiency” in spending decisions.
The Committee was also surprised to hear that the increased expenditure figure of £700m announced in this year’s Budget was based on what Stewart called a “political calculation”, suggesting the decision could lead to inefficiencies in flood investment, poor decision-making and potentially geographically unfair outcomes.
Much of Britain’s waste policy has been directed by the EU in recent years, while the UK’s approach to waste has been described by industry experts as “lukewarm at best”. The UK is complying with the EU’s Circular Economy Package’s headline 65% recycling target for municipal waste by 2030 – although this could drop by roughly 10% in the near future as better data management is attained.
Last year the Government unveiled a new £2m fund for 19 companies across the UK to develop innovative ideas that improve the sustainability and safety of shale oil and gas.
Shale development company Third Energy was recently given the go-ahead by North Yorkshire County Council to hydraulically fracture an existing well near the village of Kirby Misperton – a decision labelled as “bitterly disappointing” and “an absolute travesty” by campaign groups and environmentalists.
New Prime Minister
His successor Theresa May takes on the unenviable task of steadying an imbalanced ship that is still regarded as a “world leader” on climate change action. But as May is handed the keys to 10 Downing Street how is the green agenda likely to fare under her leadership?
May’s immediate task will be to clear up when article 50 will be invoked in order to lay out a clear timeframe for the UK’s impending departure from the EU. Environmental issues took a back seat during the referendum and there is a likely chance that the topics that dominated coverage in the build-up to June 23rd resurface.
Much of the UK’s environmental legislation fell under umbrella policies established by the EU. While this could create a regulatory headache for DECC and Defra, the UK has been warned that, as part of the single market or otherwise, it will likely have to comply with EU legislation to land trade deals.
While this is good news for the UK’s recycling and reuse policies, which a recent report stated could “weaken” after Brexit, Theresa May is likely to receive more freedom in regards to the country’s “woeful” air pollution records – to either remedy or ignore the issues.
May – a self-proclaimed supporter of the Climate Change Act – will need to thank Amber Rudd and her department for the implementation of the 5th Carbon Budget which outlines a committed pathway to lowering carbon emissions by 57% by 2032 at the latest against 1990 levels. The new Prime Minister will also find an environmentally-driven ally in the new Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who has already vowed to tackle the aforementioned air quality problems.
One area that May might wish to remedy is the UK’s slowing renewables deployment, where cuts to subsidies has seen the UK fall out of the top 10 for renewable project deployment. While analysts EY warned that 2016 would mark a “make or break year” for the UK’s renewable sector, the political turmoil of recent months is unlikely to rejuvenate the sector.
George Ogleby & Matt Mace
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