The story of sustainability, green policy and Brexit (in 24 hours)

For anyone working in, or remotely interested in, the worlds of sustainability and CSR, all of the setbacks, uncertainties, opportunities and successes of the green economy are encapsulated by what has happened over the past 24 hours.

The story of sustainability, green policy and Brexit (in 24 hours)

Let’s go back to this time yesterday: Andrea Leadsom, the unexpected insurgent in the race for Downing Street, had just taken to the stage at the Utility Week Energy Summit in her all-but-forgotten capacity as Energy Minister.

“However we choose to leave the EU, let me be clear: we remain committed to dealing with climate change,” Leadsom proclaimed, echoing Energy Secretary Amber Rudd by alleviating any fears that Brexit – which Leadsom had campaigned for – will have an adverse impact on UK energy policy.

Fast-forward to now, and a panel of sustainability experts have just finished discussing the implications of Brexit on green business at an Aldersgate Group debate in London.

“Business has a role to play in showing where legislation does and doesn’t work and collaboration and communication is key,” said Kingfisher’s head of government affairs Nick Lakin. “No one ever said the EU was perfect and that its policies were perfect, but it was good and it’s the business role to keep improving it.”

So we know that our Government (or the Department of Energy and Climate Change, at least) remains “committed” to an ambitious energy and environment agenda, whatever the outcome of Brexit – last week’s adoption of the Fifth Carbon Budget is a case in point. And we know that those working within the green economy are just as committed to continuing to drive the low-carbon agenda, whether we’re in our out of Europe – last week’s Business and Climate Change Summit reiterated that point too.

But it is what has happened in the 24 hours between those two events that leaves some cause for concern when it comes to the UK’s approach to delivering a low-carbon, resource efficient economy.

First, we received some stark context as to the scale of the resource efficiency part of that challenge. New research, presented as part of the Royal Society’s summer science exhibition, discovered that plastic dumped into the seas around the UK is carried to the Arctic within just two years, where it then does “extreme harm” to the fragile polar environment.

“Almost every fish and bird that has been cut open for science, we find plastic inside it,” said an oceanographer researching the issue. “It is really hard to find an animal that doesn’t have plastic inside it.”

How the UK accelerates the transition to a circular economy outside of the EU – and potentially outside of the nascent Circular Economy Package – is a crucial question that needs to be answered sooner rather than later.

Hours after that plastic waste research was released, we then received some insight into where things are heading on the low-carbon side of things. National Grid unveiled the latest version of its annual ‘Future Energy Scenarios’ report, which outlines four different potential scenarios for the future of the UK’s energy system: ‘Gone Green’, ‘Consumer Power’, ‘Slow Progression’ and ‘No Progression’.

Britain has a legally-binding target under the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive to produce 15% of all final energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020. In none of National Grid’s four scenarios is the country predicted to achieve the target.

And then, a few hours after that, we received an announcement which sums up the short-sighted decisions that continue to be taken, in spite of that urgent need to drive a renewables-focused energy policy. Northumberland County Council granted planning permission for a huge and highly controversial opencast coal mine in a Northumberland beauty spot, silencing the voices of more than 10,000 people objecting to the application.

“Coal is a dirty, polluting energy source and has no role to play in a modern, zero-carbon economy,” commented Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. “The Government has promised to phase out coal power stations by 2025 and planning rules should be brought in line with energy policy. We need to keep coal where it belongs: in the ground.”

So, where does all of this leave us in the context of green policy a post-Brexit Britain? Well, as Kingfisher’s Lakin put it in the Aldersgate Group debate just now, “Brexit will either be a good story or a bad story in five years’ time. Chaos creates opportunity and, fundamentally, this is an opportunity to make things better.”

That is the mindset we all need to take. For Brexit to be a good story for the green economy, we cannot settle with the words ‘remain’ and ‘unchanged’ when it comes to energy policy, and we cannot settle for ill-conceived decisions like that seen in Northumberland. We need not be reminded about the punitive effects of the Tories’ energy and environment policy up to now, and for that approach to continue regardless of Brexit – as Rudd and Leadsom have been so eager to insist – will not be a good thing.

We also cannot settle for ‘business-as-usual’ to be the mantra that our industries are pushing for during this period of uncertainty. Now, more than ever, we need our sustainability leaders to lead, and remind others in their organisation that the low-carbon, resource-efficient agenda must not be forgotten.

As London Sustainable Development Commissioner Paul Toyne recently blogged on edie: “We ALL need to lead. Think about it – how can any of us expect others to do things we aren’t prepare to do ourselves? It goes without saying that we all need to play a part in the change that we require – the alternative is not worth considering.

I wrote last week that it’s now up to us, the bastions of the low-carbon movement, to take the driving seat and continue to push the green economy into a vibrant new era. From the past 24 hours alone, I’m inclined to think that is the only way for Brexit to be looked back upon as the story with a happy ending for the green economy.

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