edie at 20: How the green agenda entered the UK’s political mainstream

As edie celebrates its 20th year as an industry-leading sustainability brand, insight editor George Ogleby examines the extent to which UK green policy has shaped the country's low-carbon, resource efficiency agenda over the past two decades.

Turn back the clocks exactly two decades ago, and a new, exciting era was emerging in British politics: under the leadership of the charismatic and widely popular Tony Blair, a resurgent Labour Party had made a dominant return to Government after an 18-year wait with a landslide victory in the previous year’s General Election.

Wasting no time, the new regime ushered in an extensive programme of sweeping social and constitutional measures; 1998 saw the introduction of the National Minimum Wage and the Human Right Act, while the details of a power-sharing devolved Government in Northern Ireland were hammered out in the historic Good Friday Agreement.

Big developments were also afoot in the green policy sphere. At a global level, the UK had just committed itself to a 12.5% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through the Kyoto Protocol. Following the agreement, New Deputy PM John Prescott was acknowledged to have played a crucial role in the 11th-hour negotiations to agree on specific reduction targets for all industrialised countries. In doing so, the wheels were set in motion for a journey towards British climate leadership on the international stage.

Early signs of progress were also being made, albeit at a slow pace, in the domestic shift towards a sustainable economy. New renewable sources – primarily wind power – began to contribute to the electricity generated, adding to a small hydroelectricity generating capacity. The landfill tax, introduced by John Gummer, now more affectionately known as Lord Deben, in 1996, had started to show the benefits of environmental taxation. The shift in environmental performance had already prompted the former Conservative Environment Secretary to proclaim the UK was no longer the “dirty man of Europe”.

Despite an initial sense of optimism, the road ahead would be arduous and fraught with many challenges. In 1998, nuclear power was at its peak generation, while coal and gas were still overwhelmingly the main sources of electricity used in Britain. Moreover, household recycling rates hovered at around 10-15% for much of the late 1990s and well into the early 2000s. Although the UK Government had passed laws attempting to control pollution since the industrial revolution, specific action aimed at promoting recycling would have to wait until 2001 when Blair pushed ahead with the EU’s End of Life Vehicles Directive.

Rising up the agenda

The UK’s green policy agenda has experienced many highs and lows since the early years of the Blair premiership. But what counts ultimately, of course, are the environmental outcomes. Have emissions declined and is the country more resilient to climate change impacts? Are resources being recycled and reused at a decent level and is the UK on course for a more circular economy?

Regarding the former question, progress can be cautiously viewed as a minor triumph. The UK has been successful in decoupling greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from GDP. In fact, since 1990, GDP has grown by more than 65% while total GHG emissions fell by 41% to the end of 2016. The UK is on course for all coal-fired power stations to be closed by 2025, low-carbon power is continually smashing records for all-time high shares of the electricity mix, with great strides being made in both the price and capacity of renewables such as offshore wind.

But how did we get there? Early political successes in this area can be traced back to the turn of the Millennium, when the Government’s 2003 White Paper on energy established a formal energy policy for the UK for the first time in 20 years. It recognised that a limitation of CO2 was necessary, committing the UK to work towards a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, and identifying business opportunities in so doing.

Other important milestones include the G8 Summit in Gleneagles in July 2005, where the British hosts put climate change prominently on the agenda, and the Stern Review, which stated that climate change is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen. These developments paved the way for perhaps the biggest UK green policy achievement to date: the Climate Change Act 2008. The document saw the UK become the first country to set such a significant long-term carbon reduction target – 80% reduction by 2050. The Act also heralded the launch of the ministerial watchdog the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which to this date continues to be an authoritative custodian of analytical honesty and rigour.

The decade since the Act’s passing has been dominated politically by the financial crisis, subsequent austerity politics and most recently the Brexit vote. The UK’s sustainability community has faced a series of challenges during this time; from the axing of the Green Deal and Zero-Carbon Homes policy to a slashing in the Feed-in-Tariffs (FiTs) for renewables.

There have been fierce and ongoing debates about related policy issues, such as the approach to fracking for shale gas, the size of energy bills and the merit of nuclear energy, while in recent times, politicians have been in opposition over contentious issues such as Heathrow Airport expansion and the proposed Swansea tidal lagoon project. Some commentators have questioned whether the Climate Change Act would have passed with the same level of unanimity at any other point in time over the past 10 years. As ministers prepare for Brexit, many have highlighted the need to strengthen the safeguards against political backsliding.

During an unprecedented period of intense political and economic instability, one of the unexpected successes has been the way in which the UK has enhanced its standing as an international climate and resource efficiency leader. The country is widely considered to have played a leadership role in the negotiations for the Paris Agreement, thanks to a combination of effective diplomatic skills and a proactive approach to the debate.

This leadership can be witnessed in the policy decisions made by the current crop of Government ministers; from multi-million-pound investments to help nations stop plastics from entering marine environment; to the country’s leading role in the launch of a global alliance to phase out coal.

Building consensus

Much of the progress in the UK’s green policy agenda has been thanks to a strong degree of cross-party consensus. Indeed, party leaders such as David Cameron and Theresa May have seen progressive environmental policy as a way to make their party more electable. Green-related legislative pieces have, overall, been met with unanimity in Westminster: only three MPs voted against the Climate Change Bill at the second and third readings.

Over the past two decades, climate and resource policy have increasingly been spearheaded by responsible ministers from Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives. The likes of Ed Miliband and Sir Ed Davey and more recently Claire Perry, and indeed, Michael Gove, have sought to safeguard and advance the environment by persuading those in power to get behind the agenda. A special mentioned should be provided for the former Environment Secretary David Miliband, who, disappointed with his department for not delivering on climate change, convinced his colleagues, including a reluctant Tony Blair, to adopt the Climate Change Act.

Sustainability action has been tested at times: over the past 20 years, there have been periods when politicians in key positions were sceptical about climate action. Potential crisis points were the appointment of a climate sceptic, Owen Paterson, as Secretary of State for the Environment in 2012, and Nick Timothy as a Special Adviser to the PM ahead of the 2017 General Election. But on the whole, the vocal and determined voices of green-minded MPs have served to provide protections against short-term political thinking.

Pushing forward

The UK has taken great strides in its transition towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy in the past 20 years. Despite often being the subject of derisory criticism from many in the green community, much of this success has been delivered through the assiduous workings of politicians guided by a sense of devotion to the welfare of the planet and a need to deliver sustainable economic growth.

However, there is much work still to do. The UK is currently not on track to meet its statutory carbon targets for the mid-2020s and early 2032. Effective ways to decarbonise difficult sectors such as heat, industry and agriculture must be sought, especially if the UK harbours any realistic ambition of adjusting to a new ‘net-zero’ emissions target that is more closely aligned with the Paris Agreement. While recycling rates in the UK rose faster in the first decade of the millennium than any other country in Europe, experts warn that the UK will miss out on its 2020 target for household recycling as the latest figures show that current rates in England have stagnated at under 45%.

The next 20 years will be a critical juncture in the country’s aim to become a world leader in resource efficiency and decarbonisation. Many stark challenges lie ahead, and it will be key for the politicians of today to learn from both the successes and failures of their predecessors over the past two decades if the UK is to pursue a pathway of long-term sustainability and economic prosperity. 

George Ogleby

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