The Prime Minister has finally revealed the UK’s 25 Year Environment Plan following months of anticipation and speculation. Whilst it has received its fair share of criticism there are positive messages in it – in particular the long term strategy to reduce plastic waste.
The plan is clearly positioned as a cross Governmental strategy with strong links to the Industrial and Clean Growth Strategies. The 25-year plan is recognition that a comprehensive programme of change is required to address the UK’s climate change goals and acknowledged that no Government is going to achieve this during one term in office. The Government’s intention to utilise Brexit as an opportunity to review and remodel legislation, regulation and incentives to ensure that the UK is established as a global leader in environmental protection is clear.
One of the most important pledges is to launch a green business council that will help the Government to encourage, incentivise and create the right conditions for private sector innovation in green enterprise and environmental entrepreneurialism. It will advise on the business case for companies to assess, address and report on natural capital risks and opportunities in their operations and supply chains, and look at the options on how to develop new natural capital markets. In addition, the Natural Environment Impact Fund will seek to stimulate private sector financing for natural capital assets. Defra will work with a range of partners from the public, private and charitable sectors to help motivate innovation that can generate revenue and improve the environment using grants and below-market rate loans to address some of the market failures that have affected profitable environment projects.
The Government is seeking to embed a ‘net environmental gain’ principle for development such as housing and new transport links, to ensure that biodiversity is left in a better state than before. Whilst this builds on the model whereby the planning system should provide biodiversity net gains where possible, there is no additional burden to housebuilders meaning that the plan is unclear on what this will mean in practice.
The Government also intends to strengthen domestic carbon offset mechanisms to encourage private sector investment and develop markets for carbon reduction. This will encourage more businesses to offset their emissions in a cost-effective way, through planting trees and a reporting framework that will be introduced for businesses to drive market demand.
The overarching plan to achieve zero avoidable waste by 2050 and double resource productivity by 2042 will be facilitated by a new national Resources and Waste strategy. It will set out the Government’s approach to cutting waste, stimulating markets for secondary materials and incentivising manufacturers to design products to meet the zero target. Businesses will be able to access an innovation reserve for plastic waste solutions with money set aside from the UK’s £7Bn research and development fund. There will also be a new strategic approach to prevent, detect and deter waste crime.
More immediate measure for retail and manufacturing sectors to consider include a potential tax system for disposable plastic containers and an extension of the 5p charge on plastic bags.
The plan also outlines a national framework of green infrastructure projects presenting what local authorities, developers and other stakeholders believe is most important. A cross-government project, led by Natural England, will review and update existing standards for the green infrastructure by the summer of 2019.
Responsible business will be at the heart of the new approach and it will be really positive to see an increase in businesses focussing on solving environmental challenges that our current lifestyle presents. That said, the timescale and the lack of any legal basis to underpin the outlined ambitions gives cause for concern. The Government’s pledge to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042 does not challenge such damaging practices with any urgency as the timescale appears to be too little too late.
The Government’s pledge to review current environmental legislation to drive greater progress in environmental protection is a fantastic opportunity to address longstanding concerns that EU regulation stops short of requiring businesses to deliver demonstrable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Whether the government has the strength to deliver on what will be a challenging and potentially unpopular set of requirements remains to be seen.
The 25 year duration creates a risk that action will be delayed too far into the future and also lacks detail to present a convincing landscape for change. If the Government is to gain the momentum of support required to deliver against these measures, it needs to take rapid and decisive action sooner rather than later on its pledges. That said, if the UK can secure a sustainable future and position itself as a world leader in achieving its climate change targets, it would make huge inroads to delivering a worldwide thriving and sustainable future for all.