Part two: 10 green policy priorities for the UK’s new Labour Government

Ed Miliband attends his first Cabinet meeting as Energy and Net-Zero Secretary. Image: 10 Downing Street, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Keir Starmer’s Labour Party stormed to success in last week’s general election, securing more than 400 MPs.

The new government is now tasked with improving public services and reviving the UK’s economy after Brexit and Covid-19. Its vision for doing so entails making the nation a low-carbon energy superpower and supporting greener manufacturing and industry.

Providing clear, long-term policy certainty to businesses in the coming months will be vital. Four changes in Prime Minister in two years have left businesses struggling to engage with policymakers and plan ahead for a more sustainable future – at an important junction for doing so.

Here, edie lists five more green policy priorities where the new UK Government should show ambition and set the direction of travel for the private sector.

This is the second half of a two-part feature. The first half, with five initial green policy priorities, can be found here.

6) Increasing energy efficiency spending, as promised

Labour has committed to invest £6.6bn in home energy efficiency improvements on top of the £6bn of funding already planned by the Conservatives. However, the specifics on the funding sources and allocation methods are yet to be disclosed.

Additionally, it remains to be seen how the funding will be distributed across homes, businesses and the public sector, all of which have expressed the need for government financial support.

According to the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), the Government will need to invest nearly £64bn over the next ten years for building retrofit projects, if the built environment sector is to achieve its carbon emissions reduction goals, in line with the nation’s net-zero goals.

Heating will be key, as well as insulation and glazing. The Conservative Government had previously set a target to ban gas boilers by 2035 to accelerate the adoption of heat pumps. However, Labour’s Energy Security and Net-Zero Secretary, Ed Miliband, has expressed plans to scrap this ban before it becomes law, emphasising that he does not want the public to perceive a Labour Government as one that would “force” households to “rip out” their gas boilers.

Instead, Labour would seek to maintain grant funding levels and compound this with other interventions to support a more rapid national heat pump rollout.

Concerns have been raised that removing the 2035 target could potentially hinder the transition to low-carbon heating. Currently, 77% of the emissions reductions needed in heat in the Sixth Carbon Budget (2033-2037) are not yet back with credible policy support, posing a challenge for this Labour-led Parliament.

7) Publishing a landmark land use strategy

Demand for land across the UK is increasing for reasons ranging from housebuilding, to increasing energy generation, to meeting nature targets. A land use strategy and framework would set out how these competing demands should be managed. It was promised years ago, much-delayed, and ultimately did not come out before the election despite pressure from MPs.

Sunak’s Government, and Liz Truss’s, had argued that increasing solar and onshore wind would not be compatible with improved food security. Tory policymakers had also sought to unlock housebuilding by weakening water pollution rules.

A joined-up land use strategy and framework would help ministers to navigate any difficult choices strategically, with a view to meeting long-term policy objectives around the economy, society and public health. It would sit with the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), but impact many key departments.

Argiculture is a key piece of the puzzle. Post-Brexit reforms to farmer payments are underway in a bid to reward farmers for nature and soil conservation and restoration, not just industrial output. Farmers want more information on how they can remain financially viable amid challenges like low farm-gate prices and extreme weather like the flooding which is currently impacting eight in 10 farms.

There is also the fact that the National Food Strategy, as it stands, is not legally binding and does not include most independent recommendations from author Henry Dimbleby. Tory Ministers rubbished Dimbleby’s recommendations on reducing red meat and sugary processed foods in British diets, providing more free meals to disadvantaged children and setting long-term targets for land-use change.

8) Updating the national climate adaptation plan

The UK’s climate mitigation plans are inadequate, the High Court has ruled twice. But Ministers cannot neglect the national climate adaption plan, which is currently facing a judicial review mandated by the High Court.

According to research from the CCC, climate risks to the UK are increasing in number and magnitude more rapidly than expected, with billions of pounds worth of infrastructure at risk in the coming decades.

Recent research found that weather-related incidents have incurred a £3bn cost to UK network operators over the last 15 years due to delays, cancellations and insurance claims.

Despite the urgency, the UK currently lacks a climate adaptation strategy covering agriculture, supply chains, power systems and public health at security risks.

In its Party manifesto, Labour has stated plans to work with stakeholders in the Fire and Rescue services to inform policy on climate adaption and establish national standards on adaptation.

This could present a key opportunity for the Labour Government to solidify UK’s presence as a global leader ahead of COP29 this November, especially, as the COP29 Presidency has urged members to develop National Adaptation Plans (NAPs) by 2025 as a key priority.

International adaptation work is vital. A study conducted last year by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) unveiled that around £8bn worth of food imported into the UK is currently exposed to climate-related risks.

9) Re-invigorating the Resources and Waste Strategy for a circular, less polluted economy

Thersea May’s Government unveiled the Resources and Waste Strategy in late 2018, in what was hailed as the first sweeping package of policy updates in more than a decade. The Strategy included a UK-wide deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks packaging and updated Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regimes for packaging, textiles, tyres and mattresses. It also floated mandatory food waste reporting for big retailers.

For households, there was the promise of weekly food waste recycling collections and of simplified recycling for dry materials including plastics, cardboard and aluminium.

All major components of the Strategy were delayed due to the pandemic and two changes in Prime Minister in 2022.  This has jeapordised the delivery of recycling targets, the Public Accounts Committee has concluded. It has also confused businesses over when and how to invest and prepare.

The new Government will now oversee updated timelines for delivery of the DRS (likely to be October 2027) and EPR for packaging (likely to be October 2025). It will also need to firm up other EPR schemes and put food waste reporting back on the table, as it is popular with businesses.

There are other opportunities to lead. The Strategy at present does miss opportunities to tackle waste from buildings, for example. Construction and demolition waste accounts for almost two-thirds of the UK’s annual waste by weight. Reducing this waste in the first instance, plus enhancing recycling, could unlock opportunities for efficiency, innovation and carbon reductions.

Additionally, the 2023 Battery Strategy is not yet enshrined in law. Policy is needed sooner rather than later to capture value from batteries large and small, including those from electric vehicles, consumer electronics and vapes.

Water pollution has undeniably been the focus topic on waste and natural resources in the lead-up to the general election. Every major Party made a manifesto commitment to clamp down on combined sewage overflows from water companies – which have become increasingly common even in times of low rainfall. The last Government had implemented unlimited water company fines and refreshed its long-term targets to reduce overflow frequencies.

Labour intends to put polluting water companies under special measures, as would be done for failing schools and care homes. It will also enhance Ofwat’s powers to ban water boss bonuses, enhance water monitoring and levy criminal charges against ‘persistent law breakers’.

Labour will also block the Conservatives from attempting to weaken water pollution rules for housebuilders.

10) Preparing for biodiversity COP and COP29

This autumn/winter, the UN climate COP will be held in Azerbaijan, while the biodiversity COP will take place in Colombia. This presents an opportunity for the Labour Government to restore the UK’s leadership position on the global stage.

Under the Environment Act 2021, the UK is legally obligated to halt the decline in species abundance and protect 30% of its land and sea for nature by 2030. This legislation builds on the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework established at COP15, which the UK has signed.

Currently, only 7% of land in England is protected for nature, and just over a third of that is in good condition, with similar lack of progress made for the sea. The UK ranks in the bottom 10% of nations globally in terms of biodiversity intactness.

Recent research indicates that the Government will need to allocate approximately £1.5bn annually to international biodiversity funding to meet these key Global Biodiversity Framework commitments.

Regarding climate finance, the UK is part of a collective commitment from wealthy nations to deliver $100bn of annual climate finance to the Global South. The Conservative Government pledged at least £11.6bn in climate finance until 2025-26. However, this target has not been met.

Instead, the Tory Government was criticised for altering aid calculation methods and providing aid more as loans than grants, which can trap poor nations in a debt cycle instead of facilitating growth. Labour’s Foreign Minister David Lammy has stated intentions to hit “a reset with the Global South” on climate. However, the specifics of this new foreign strategy have yet to be revealed.

Only three months remain before the COPs begin, so Lammy and other Ministers will need to shape their approach quickly.

This is the second half of a two-part feature. The first half can be found here, including the below five policy priorities:

  • Making the Net-Zero Strategy lawful
  • Getting Great British Energy up and running
  • Planning a just transition for oil and gas workers
  • Unlocking green finance from corporates
  • Publishing a modern green industrial strategy

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