Theresa May’s green half measures fail to reverse her government’s dirty policies

Business Green

Published 12th January 2018

Full article here (paywall)

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Theresa May’s speech, launching a 25-year plan for the environment, reveals a government of half measures and double standards. A focus on reducing the scourge of plastic waste, which is of course vital, has provided a useful diversion from the many government policies that, far from protecting our environment, are in fact trashing it. These are also policies that are keeping dirty old industries limping on – and even introducing new polluting ones – while stifling the enormous potential for emerging clean technologies and businesses.

Theresa May has promised that we will make the most of emerging technologies; building a cleaner, greener country while reaping the economic rewards of the clean growth revolution. Yet in the budget last year Philip Hammond told companies hoping to build new windfarms, solar plants and tidal lagoons, there would be no new subsidies for clean power projects until 2025 at the earliest. Instead we saw tax relief offered to the North Sea oil and gas sector.  And while the phasing out of coal is welcome, the government is hellbent on kickstarting a whole new fossil industry with fracking.   

Even government failures have been painted as successes. Claims of making ‘huge strides to improve the quality of the air we breathe’ ignores the fact that we are still the dirty man of Europe on air quality, with our cities consistently breaching EU air quality standards. Indeed, it was only successful court action by Client Earth that forced the government to draw up a plan on tackling our poisonous air. Meanwhile the government continues to plough billions into new roads and expand airports and, for the seventh year running, froze fuel duty in the budget, even for deadly diesel. These are not signs of a government committed to a clean transport revolution; one in which there would be huge growth in the public transport sectors and incentives for motor manufacturers to switch rapidly to producing electric vehicles.      

What is desperately missing from the Conservatives new plan for the environment is a vision for life beyond growth. Fundamentally, we need to shift the focus of the economy away from endless growth and pointless consumption towards ensuring everybody has a decent, happy and meaningful life.

From a business point of view, it means embracing the circular economy which would drive innovative ways to eliminate waste and boost sectors involved in repairing and recycling; an economy that would of course be powered entirely by renewables. The government have trumpeted offshore wind – while failing to concede that Hinkley is a hugely expensive error – but continue to block the cheapest form of renewable electricity of all: onshore wind. Not only is it cheap, it has huge potential for community ownership, allowing people themselves to take back control of their energy.     

And so back to the headline action – which speaks volumes in itself: the extension of the 5p charge on plastic bags. Theresa May appears to be claiming credit for this policy. But England was far behind Scotland and Wales in introducing this charge. The prime minister has also been careful to avoid revealing that the charge is actually to fulfil an EU directive on plastic pollution that was designed by the Greens in the European Parliament.  

This brings me to my final and very important point. If we are really to see the bold green changes that are needed, rather than the insipid hints of green being served up by the Conservatives, we need greater Green representation at Westminster. In that sense, perhaps the greenest move of all would be to reform our archaic voting system; to introduce a fair proportional system that would enable more green MPs to be elected to support and build on the excellent work of Caroline Lucas. That way we might genuinely become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.