Six changes to UK green policy that you need to know about this week

From 'right to repair' laws to new 'green' incentives for farmers

Legally binding environmental policy principles

Ministers have repeatedly been accused of failing to collaborate to avoid net-zero policy gaps and deliver a joined-up approach that tackles interconnected issues like the climate and nature crises simultaneously. A particular disappointment to key green economy figures this year has been a delay to the Environment Bill’s return to Parliament.

This week, however, Defra outlined plans to add five legally binding principles to a legal footing on the Bill. The footing would apply not only to the Bill, but to all future policymaking. The principles designed to get the UK on track with the Government’s commitment to “build back greener and leave the environment in a better state for future generations”.

Principles include integration (ensuring that policies are interconnected to maximise opportunities); prevention (aiming to stop or reduce harm to the environment instead of remediation after the event); rectification at source (ensuring that, when damage does happen, it is not offset as a first option); polluter pays, and precaution. This last principle is designed to ensure that potential threats of serious or irreversible environmental damage should be tackled as a priority and that policymakers do not cite a lack of certainty as a cause for inaction.

A consultation on the principles opened this week and will close on 2 June.

‘Right to repair’ commitment

Following work on its inquiry into e-waste, the world’s fastest-growing domestic waste stream, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) recommended that the UK Government introduce legislation requiring electronics and electricals manufacturers to offer parts and repair services for longer after purchase.

BEIS this week officially confirmed that this recommendation has been taken on board. From summer 2021, manufactures of goods including fridges, washing machines, dishwashers and TVs will be legally obligated to make spare parts available for all products. The Government has also reserved the right to call in companies that are deliberately building short lifespans to products – a process known as ‘premature, built-in obsolescence’.

BEIS secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said that some products could experience an extension to their working life of 10 years, thanks to the changes. “Our plans to tighten product standards will ensure more of our electrical goods can be fixed rather than thrown on the scrap heap, putting more money back in the pockets of consumers whilst protecting the environment,” he added.

The EU notably published its Circular Economy Action Plan last year; a policy package that includes right to repair mandates.

All change for product energy efficiency labels

Now that Brexit is complete, the UK Government has finalised changes to labelling processes used to communicate the energy efficiency of appliances like dishwashers and TVs to individuals and businesses. The new labelling system, which began rolling out on 1 March, will see energy efficiency labelled on a scale from A to G. Requirements for an ‘A’ grade have been tightened, meaning few products will meet this level at present.

Criticisms directed at the EU’s labelling system have often centred around the fact that grades span from A+++ to G, with most products meeting the criteria for A, A+, A++ or A+++. Some have argued that this has enabled manufacturers to claim their product is “green” or “best in class” when that is not the case. The EU itself is now in the process of implementing its own A-G scale.

In a statement this week, BEIS said the changes should encourage consumers to buy more energy-efficient products, thus encouraging manufacturers to produce them. The Department has not confirmed plans to change tax schemes to help manufacturers improve products, or measures to ban products with low grades from the UK market, at this stage.

Sustainable Farming Incentive trials

Under the Agriculture Bill – designed to replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) after Brexit – farmers will be rewarded financially for work to improve air and water quality; boost soil health; implement flood mitigation and adaptation measures; improve access to the countryside or bolster animal welfare. Payments under this incentive scheme will be rolled out over a seven-year period starting this year.

Defra confirmed this week that the first trials of the new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) will begin later this year with an official pilot cohort of “several hundred” farmers. The trials will test the scheme “from start to finish”, following successful research into specific parts of the Incentive with 3,000 farmers.

This statement from Defra contains full details on which farmers will be eligible, how they can apply and the rates of incentive they are likely to receive.

Responding to the announcement, The Wildlife Trusts circulated a statement to media representatives, which reads: “The Wildlife Trusts have repeatedly called for a clear articulation of agriculture policy outcomes with associated milestones and targets, and plans for the associated actions and payments to deliver them. Policy objectives on farmed land should be tied to meeting the environmental ambitions of the government, which should be legally bound through the Environment Bill. 

“A clear roadmap was not included in the Agriculture Transition Plan, nor is it included in today’s SFI pilot plans. Many questions are still unanswered. How will difficult choices around what farmers get paid for be prioritised and spatially mapped to meet the climate and nature crisis? How will taxpayers’ money used to pay farmers to be demonstrated as providing value for money?”

Second round of the Green Recovery Challenge Fund opens

As an alternative to the National Nature Service, which had received broad support from the green economy but was ultimately deemed too costly by the Treasury, Defra launched a £40m Green Recovery Challenge Fund last year. The challenge allows environmental charities and local authorities to bid for funding to complete nature conservation, restoration and education programmes.

After the initial Challenge Fund pot was more than six times oversubscribed, Defra and the Treasury confirmed plans to launch a second pot, also totalling £40m. That second pot officially opened this week. Each successful charity will be awarded a maximum share of £2m. The deadline for all applications is 14 April; applications for grants of £250,000 or more must be submitted earlier, by 22 March.

“In the first round, we awarded grants across a broad variety of environmental projects, ranging from planting trees and restoring peatlands to connecting people with green spaces, forests and protected landscapes,” Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said. “I encourage more organisations to apply so we can continue to make a real difference.”

Air passenger duty cut considered

The measures detailed above have broadly been welcomed by green groups – although there have been the usual calls for more clarity, rapid implementation and further action in the future. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also signalled his support for further reform to the UK’s air passenger duty frameworks, with changes on the cards including a reduction in costs for domestic flights.

The Budget last week was used to announce an increase in air passenger duty, from 2022, of £2 for long-haul economy flights and £5 for long-haul premium economy, business class and first-class tickets. The increase will be £13 for those travelling long-haul routes in private aircraft.

Johnson, however, is reportedly considering measures to reduce air passenger duty for domestic flights. Alternatively, the UK may introduce reduced rates or a zero rate on the return leg of short-haul flights. Both proposals are designed to stimulate the aviation sector post-Covid-19.

Green groups have called the proposed changes “nonsensical” in light of the UK’s climate targets and its position as COP26 host. Indeed, the Climate Change Committee has repeatedly stated that the UK will need to cap aviation sector growth to meet net-zero, and many businesses have included measures to discourage domestic flights in their own net-zero strategies.

Sarah George

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