It’s time for ACTION: 14 green policy priorities for the new UK Government – Part one

From environmental plans and air quality proposals through to energy efficiency schemes and low-carbon industrial strategies, edie has identified the most critical areas of green policy that Theresa May's new Government must prioritise to ensure the UK bears the fruits of a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy.

Prime Minister May’s shock move to call a General Election will undoubtedly go down in the annals as one of the most catastrophic political decisions in modern British history. The ensuing chaos of the hung parliament outcome has left the country in severe want of a ‘strong and stable’ Government at the worst possible time, as crunch negotiations commence with our European counterparts to determine the trajectory of the UK’s long-term future.

An unholy alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) provides the Tories with a wafer-thin majority which could unceremoniously collapse at any given moment. It is unlikely, therefore, that the Queen’s Speech today (21 June) will deliver much substance to the Government’s upcoming policy approach.

This uncertainty is being felt nowhere greater than within the green business community. The prospect of further delays to key environmental legislation in particular has caused palpable concern for sustainability professionals.

But the current political disarray must not have negative consequences on the UK’s environment or green economy. We need green policy action, and we need it now. 

In this two-part feature, edie has pulled together the expert views of various sustainability professionals and green organisations, and analysed the responses to our pre-election green policy survey, to bring you a list of 14 key green policy areas that the next UK Government must now prioritise.

1) Deliver a low-carbon Industrial Strategy

edie readers have repeatedly echoed a number of business and political leaders, including Lib Dem leadership contender Vince Cable, in calling on the Government to embed low-carbon principles into its new Industrial Strategy.

The low-carbon and renewable energy sector is continuing to grow domestically – figures suggest that the sector made a £43bn turnover in 2015, with an estimated 234,000 full-time employees working directly in the industry. Meanwhile, technological advances and competition are demonstrating that a modern, low-carbon energy system offers increasing potential to improve the competitiveness of the UK economy.

This was acknowledged in the Government’s own Industrial Strategy green paper, which promised investment in smart technologies such as demand response, energy storage and electric vehicles (EVs). However, that blueprint failed to address the renewable energy policy gaps created in recent years through subsidy cuts for onshore wind and solar panels.

The Government will need to address these issues to develop an Industrial Strategy which support the UK’s low-carbon transition through job creation, improved production, an innovation boost and regional growth.

2) Prioritise energy efficiency

Many believe that improving energy efficiency is the single most important area for ministers to focus on in the Industrial Strategy. Indeed, research has suggested that installing more energy efficiency measures would be up to £12bn cheaper than going ahead with the Hinkley Point C nuclear project.

There will be a particular need for improved energy efficiency in buildings and energy networks, with energy used for heating and powering the UK’s non-domestic buildings still responsible for around 12% of the country’s emissions. 

The Tory manifesto pledge of an energy efficiency fund to ensure limited energy costs for businesses was welcomed by industry. But the engineering sector believes better incentives are required to drive heating efficiency savings in the UK’s existing building stock, in addition to stricter building regulations on energy efficiency.

“If the Government’s Industrial Strategy is to make the most of the opportunities it should have greater energy efficiency and a system wide approach at its heart,” said Energy Institute chief executive Louise Kingham. “And the policies adopted must be credible over the long-term, to provide industry with the confidence needed to sustain investment and jobs in energy technologies and infrastructure.”

3) Stop dithering and release an ambitious 25-Year Environment Plan

The Government has consistently promised to become the first “to leave the environment in a better state than we found it”. Under this premise, ministers have pledged to produce a 25-Year Environment Plan.

Yet, question marks continue to hang over the release of the long-awaited document. The comprehensive Plan, led by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the UK’s Natural Capital Committee, was initially due to be released last year. But delays have left green groups concerned about exactly when the full document will be released.

An array of sustainability and environmental experts have told edie the Government must “stop dithering” and publish the plan, after a leaked version of the document was criticised for providing “grand promises with zero detail”. If produced with sufficiently ambitious measures, the plan could help UK businesses benefit from a £7bn windfall through natural capital initiatives.

“Businesses are keen to work with government to develop the detail of the Plan, so that it can help support the increase of financial flows into projects that enhance the state of our natural environment and the long-term benefits it provides to society and the economy,” a spokesperson for sustainability advocacy association Aldersgate Group said.

“The Government can help unlock new markets in ecosystem services via smart regulation or lead by example by developing a procurement policy that favours businesses with a focus on resource efficiency and natural capital enhancements.”

4) Stop dithering and release an ambitious Clean Growth Plan

The Clean Growth Plan – also referred to as the Emissions Reduction Plan – will set out how the Government intends to meet the fifth carbon budget, which seeks to limit the UK’s annual emissions to 57% below 1990 levels by the year 2032.

In April, former Climate Minister Nick Hurd said the release of the long-awaited plan was in a ‘holding pattern‘ of new policy frameworks following Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to seek a General Election.

The Government have pledged that the plan, when finally released, will be “robust and ambitious” and will help to underline the UK’s leadership position on tackling climate change. The green business community has been clear in its belief that immediate publication of the Clean Growth Plan will help the UK attract low-carbon investment and meet climate targets.

UK Green Building Council (UK-GBC) chief executive Julie Hirigoyen said: “Steadfast commitment to tackling climate change is one rare area of agreement between the two main parties, so this political common ground must now be extended to decisive action on domestic carbon emissions reductions.”

5) Tackle Britain’s air quality crisis once and for all with a strong Clean Air Act

One of Michael Gove’s first actions as the new Defra Secretary will be to defend his Government’s poor plans to clean up the UK’s filthy air. The nation’s air quality crisis is estimated to cause around 40,000 UK premature deaths each year, while London breached the annual legal limit for air pollution levels within five days of 2017. Green groups have reiterated calls for a new Clean Air Act to tackle the sources of modern air pollution, accelerate the shift to zero-emissions transport, make the UK a world leader in clean technology

The Government’s latest proposals were published on 5 May and were widely condemned by business leaders and politicians, with the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan calling them “woefully inadequate”. Environmental lawyers ClientEarth are taking the Government to the High Court for a third time in a bid to remove “major flaws” from the proposals.

“Michael Gove has a career-defining opportunity here to be remembered as the minister who finally cleaned up our country’s illegally bad air pollution,” said ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton. “The Government has twice been ordered to produce plans to bring down air pollution as soon as possible. We hope that the new Secretary of State is able to get a grip of this problem. Everyone has the right to breathe clean air.”

5) Make all new homes zero-carbon from 2020

For the built environment to meet carbon-reduction objectives in line with those of the Paris Agreement on climate change,  a “monumental and coordinated” effort is required from business and governments to ensure all existing buildings by 2050 operate at net-zero carbon.

On a domestic level, the UK Government will need to set national regulations for new and existing buildings. A good start would be the restoration of a zero-carbon standard for new homes, introduced under the Lib Dem-Tory Coalition but scrapped by the David Cameron administration.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has consistently reiterated the UK Government is ill-equipped to tackle the issue of reducing emissions from heating the UK’s buildings in order to meet the Fifth Carbon Budget. As such, many within the industry are keen to see the UK continue its commitment to the EU Buildings Directive, which enforces all new buildings to be ‘nearly zero-energy’ by 2020.

7) Produce a national waste plan to build a circular economy

The Conservative Party manifesto contained relatively little on waste and recycling efforts, despite this area having reached something of a crisis point in England, with recycling rates slowing and the quantity of rejected recyclable waste increasing.

edie readers are demanding action, with a combined 78% of respondents to our recent green policy survey claiming a national waste plan is desperately needed in order to increase recycling rates and achieve standardised collection systems across the country.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Services Association (ESA) wants to see the Government prioritise some specific areas or waste policy: reform extended producer responsibility, stimulate demand for secondary raw materials, and drive waste crime out of the sector, the ESA has urged.

“By addressing these areas, the new Government can help deliver thousands of new green jobs, provide stable economic growth, and create a healthier, more resource efficient environment,” said ESA’s executive director Jacob Hayler.

The second part of edie’s UK green policy priorities list will be published on edie next week.

George Ogleby & Luke Nicholls

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie