David Cameron made the environment a central plank of his modernisation agenda. Upon becoming Prime Minister in 2010, he famously pledged to lead the ‘greenest government ever’. For him, environmental concern married together the traditional conservative idea that we have a duty to pass on a good inheritance to future generations, and the modernising idea that people value quality of life, as well as economic growth. By contrast, little is known of Theresa May’s views on the subject. After her first party conference as leader, however, the early signs for the environment are positive.
Removing ‘climate change’ from the Whitehall departmental nomenclature has not weakened the Government’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Prominent green conservatives, like Greg Clark MP and Nick Hurd MP, have been given key ministerial briefs. And the Prime Minister herself recently announced that the UK would ratify the Paris Climate Agreement before the end of the year. This will make the UK one of the first countries in the EU to complete domestic ratification.
The new Government’s announcements on the natural environment have been particularly impressive. There is now a commitment to ban the use of microbeads in cosmetics. These tiny particles of plastic, which make up as much as 4% of the plastic in seas, are harmful to marine life that ingest them. This sensible regulation will push manufacturers to adopting cost-effective alternatives, making a small but significant contribution to reducing plastic pollution in the world’s oceans.
Steps are also being taken to stop the poaching of wild elephants for their tusks. Current rules in the UK allow ivory to be traded with a certificate. This has enabled the illegal ivory trade to flourish, with over 150,000 elephants worldwide killed by wildlife traffickers in the past decade. New regulation in the UK will ban the sale of all ivory products made since 1947.
Perhaps most significantly, even more marine reserves around some of Britain’s overseas territories have recently been designated, doubling the area of protected sea. Equivalent to the landmass of India, the newly-expanded ‘Blue Belt’ will prevent harmful practices that degrade the marine environment. If properly enforced and given sufficient resources, this could be a major conservation achievement, as more than 94% of the UK’s biodiversity is contained in the waters around its overseas territories.
With these early wins secured, what should May’s Government’s next environmental focus be? A carbon reduction plan is expected by early 2017 ndth new policies to ensure the UK meets its carbon budgets. At its centre should be details on how the Government is going to phase out coal-fired power stations. Our research has found that there is ample time to plug any capacity gaps that aren’t filled by new renewables, energy efficiency, storage, and interconnection with new gas-fired power stations.
The plan should also contain ambitious proposals on improving domestic energy efficiency. Since the failure of the Green Deal under Cameron’s Government, improvements to the housing stock have stalled, despite there being a large number of homes without any insulation in their loft or on their walls. Bright Blue has recently advocated new Help to Improve loans and ISAs to give households an attractive financing mechanism to install both energy efficiency measures and small-scale renewables. This could be complemented with some targeted regulation, for instance prior to the sale of a property, to improve the least efficient homes. Such a programme would reduce gas imports, cut emissions, and strengthen economic growth across the country.
On the natural environment, the Government must scale up its plans to tackle air pollution, which is estimated to cause around 40,000 premature deaths a year across the country. The UK is still not forecast to be fully compliant with legal limits until 2025. Increasing the number of low emission zones by devolving more powers, funding, and responsibilities to all English city councils should be an immediate priority. In the long-term, a plan to accelerate the transition away from diesel cars to electric vehicles is required to cut air pollution, boost the manufacturing sector, and reduce carbon emissions.
It has been an encouraging start. The Government must now nurture these green shoots. The Great Repeal Bill announced at conference will mean EU environmental regulations are initially maintained. The Government must now identify areas to improve and strengthen these existing protections. Their green record so far augurs well.
Sam Hall is a researcher at Bright Blue