Theresa May's green policy legacy: Environmental leader or lukewarm laggard?
After weeks of calls to resign from all sides of the House, Theresa May has today (24 May) confirmed that she will step down as Prime Minister next month after three years in power, opening the race for the next Conservative Party leader. Amid tabloid claims that her legacy will be solely based on failing to deliver Brexit, edie instead explores her impact on green policy.
As was the case with the UK’s first female Conservative Prime Minster, May’s reign has been brought down by inner-party and cross-party rows over Europe. Amid the backdrop of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom’s resignation, as well as criticism from her Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, spurred by her failure to achieve backing for her Brexit deal, May this morning announced her intention to step down on 7 June.
When all is said and done, May’s initially stated ambition to empower “forgotten” parts of the UK’s society and geography in order to solve key environmental and social issues have undeniably been overshadowed by Brexit. She has spent the majority of her three-year reign attempting to deliver on Britain’s decision to leave the EU, in the wake of her predecessor David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum, while tending to other policy concerns as usual – a feat which even her worst critics have not understated.
In her resignation speech, May – as expected - called for her successor to champion compromise and consensus in a time of political upheaval, emphasising her “deep regret” at failing to do so herself.
But she also used the platform to highlight the work her Government has done on social and environmental sustainability, stating: “My focus has been on ensuring that the good jobs of the future will be created in communities across the whole country, not just in London and the South East, through our Modern Industrial Strategy.”
“We are also protecting the environment, eliminating plastics waste, tackling climate change and improving air quality. This is what a decent, moderate and patriotic Conservative government, on the common ground of British Politics, can achieve, even as we tackle the biggest peacetime challenge that any Government has faced.”
But did May’s actions match these ambitions, or do her Government’s green policies fail to live up to her rhetoric?
Perhaps one of the biggest changes to Britain’s energy and industry policy to have taken place during the last three years was the abolition of DECC in June 2016. May said at the time that she had taken the move to more closely align business and policy action on decarbonisation and climate challenges – with several key green economy figures praising her choice. The decision came amid a major cabinet reshuffle which saw the likes of Therese Coffey and Greg Clark step into the green economy positions they still hold today.
Around a year after this shift was completed. May confirmed that the UK would end unabated coal-fired electricity generation by 2025. The motion was first tabled in November 2015, but it was May’s Government that consulted on the proposals and wrote them into law. Since then, coal power stations have recorded the lowest electricity output since 1994, with wind and solar generation levels repeatedly surpassing records.
On the other hand, May’s Government has also brought in some of the most fiercely criticised clean energy policies to date. Onshore wind, for example, was blocked from competing for new power contracts under the Contracts for Difference (CfD) auctions, while the solar sector is now facing the possibility of VAT hikes following a string of subsidy closures.
Away from renewables, it was ultimately May who cemented the Government’s support for the £18bn Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset. While Britain’s industry groups have hailed the decision as a necessary one to provide secure, affordable low-carbon power as coal comes off the grid, environmentalists have argued that the time and energy could have been better spent on renewables.
The three big green policy strategies which edie has written about in recent months – namely the Clean Growth Strategy, Industrial Strategy and 25-Year Environment Plan – have all been brought in under May. All are likely to shape the future of the UK’s low-carbon ambitions for decades to come.
A broad Industrial Strategy was launched in November 2017, setting out a vision for clean technology and innovation to play a key role in boosting the UK's long-term economic prospects. The strategy is being supplemented by various sector deals – including aviation and offshore – and the Government has pledged to invest £400m in EV charging points and a further £100m to extend the plug-in car grant. This will be matched by an increased £31bn into the National Productivity Fund, to back investments in transport, housing and digital infrastructure.
In January 2018, May outlined a vision for a "cleaner, greener Britain", unveiling the long-awaited 25-year Environment Plan which pledges to eliminate all "avoidable" plastic waste by the end of 2042.The Plan, which was subject to lengthy delays as Brexit continued to dominate political discussions to the point of complete distraction, is ambitious in scope but offers little in the way of tangible targets and action plans. The Government has since been urged to create legally binding targets for environmental issues that can be scrutinised by a new independent oversight body.
A report from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) additionally recommended that the UK’s new green watchdog should have the power take the Government and other public bodies to court where standards are breached, as well as the remit to oversee all public authorities and to initiate its own investigations that can be adjudicated by the courts.
Another landmark strategy delayed by Brexit talks was the Clean Growth Strategy, detailing how multi-billion-pound investments into low-carbon innovations and household energy-efficiency will push the UK towards its future carbon budgets. Despite acting as the blueprints for the UK’s low-carbon transition, research suggests that the strategy won’t put the nation on course to reach its future carbon budgets.
After the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 first hit Britain’s TV screens in 2016, plastic pollution has become top-of-mind for policymakers and businesses alike, amid an ever-rising wave of consumer awareness and activism. It is therefore unsurprising that single-use plastics have taken centre-stage in many of the resource efficiency policies implemented or instigated by May’s Government, with a commitment to eradicate all “avoidable” plastic waste in the UK by 2042 heading up the 25-Year Environment Plan.
It was May who, in 2018, launched a consultation into a nationwide ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds – which has resulted in restrictions on the sale and distribution of these items written into law for April 2020. Her Government has also implemented the UK’s ban on plastic microbeads and on major retailers distributing single-use plastic carrier bags without a charge, the latter of which could soon be rolled out to SMEs, subject to ongoing consultation.
More recently, Defra published proposals for the first comprehensive update to the UK’s Resources and Waste Strategy in more than a decade. The proposals include plans for packaging producers to pay 100% of the net-costs of disposal of packaging they place on the market, up from 10% at present and for implementing a national framework for kerbside plastics recycling.
Campaigners have claimed that these policy changes are evidence that the Government is “finally taking plastic waste seriously” – but some MPs have been lobbying for more rapid and wide-reaching action from Ministers. The draft Phase-out of Plastic Pollution Bill, for example, demands a ban on “the vast majority of polluting, single-use plastics” within the next six years, including sachets and coffee cup lids, and has been backed by 25 cross-party MPs.
Carbon, climate and the road to net-zero
Since supporting then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in ratifying the UK’s contributions to the Paris Agreement in 2016, May has led a number of initiatives to bolster green policy on decarbonisation.
Her Government has vowed to halve the energy use from new buildings by 2030 and to halve the energy costs from the existing building stock - both domestically and commercially – within the same timeframe, and implemented a £420m construction sector deal to drive progress on these aims.
May’s tenure has also seen the UK join a coalition of nations committing to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 at the earliest – a move which led to the Government asking the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) for advice on how to legislate for this trajectory. As Ministers mulled over which parts of this advice to adopt, May united parliament in declaring a ‘Climate Emergency’ in a symbolic stand against global warming.
Nonetheless, the UK remains on course to breach its fourth and fifth carbon budgets by 139 and 245 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) respectively, largely due to slow progress in the decarbonisation of transport, heavy industry and the built environment. May has also faced criticism for dismissing the action of school climate strikers and encouraging them to cease protesting in favour of studying – a stance which has not been adopted by the likes of Energy Minister Claire Perry or Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who have publicly voiced their support for the striking schoolchildren.
The relationship between Brexit and green policy has been twofold. Green economy experts in some fields have expressed dismay that the entire process of leaving the EU has delayed the development of key domestic policies and slowed down funding for the UK’s low-carbon economy, while others have argued that it has forced the Government to take a closer look at how fit-for-the-future its environmental frameworks are, or that it will spur the creation of new domestic “green-collar” jobs.
Whatever your stance on the matter, it worth noting that it was May who introduced the Environment Bill outlining how the Government will embed green considerations into the Brexit progress, after Gove repeatedly insisted on the delivery of a “green Brexit”. Published last December, the draft Environment Bill outlines how the UK’s post-Brexit environmental watchdog, called the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), will have the power to take businesses, public bodies and the Government to court over any breaches of environmental law.
However, it additionally states that the body will not be able to issue fines, call senior representatives to attend Government hearings or place non-compliant organisations into ‘special measures’ – a power currently held by Ofsted for educational facilities and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) for healthcare bodies – leading some to conclude that the OEP will not be sufficient in holding the Government to account over breaches of the Climate Change Act or any future net-zero legislation.
Aside from dividing opinions on the OEP – and despite her overarching failure to pass a Withdrawal Agreement through the House of Commons – one thing that May has done for Brexit is removing the possibility of a “no-deal” exit from the table. Experts seem unanimous that this scenario would be the worst of those available for the UK’s green policy and low-carbon economy.
edie readers keen to find out more about the environmental impacts of May’s approach to Brexit are encouraged to read our Brexit ‘Matrix’, which, developed with the help of green policy experts, clearly explains the impacts that the UK's various exit scenarios would have on environmental legislation. You can download that resource for free here.
Sustainable Development Goals
After the UK Government's attempts at addressing and implementing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were labelled "a total fail" by the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) Mary Creagh, a damning report from UKSSD revealed that the nation was only performing well on 24% of targets considered relevant to the domestic delivery of the Goals.
In a bid to bridge that gap, May’s Government last year launched the first voluntary review into how the nation's business community is contributing to the SDG agenda, and agreed to let the EAC scrutinise this process.
The results of the review are due to be published in full this summer, with the Prime Minister set to deliver its “main messages” at the UN High Level Political Forum in July. The Department for International Development (DFID) this month published the “main messages” of the review results – but the document notably lacks any quantitative information on how the UK is performing against specific targets.
Sarah George & Matt Mace