Welcome but flawed: May's green speech promises plenty, but can it deliver?

James Murray
clock • 11 min read
London Wetland Centre, where Theresa May gave her speech | Credit: Matt Brown
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London Wetland Centre, where Theresa May gave her speech | Credit: Matt Brown

It may have gone some way to tackling the scourge of plastic pollution, but May missed the opportunity to turbo charge the government's green revamp

The German's probably have a word for it. That feeling when something is good, great even, but is still somehow disappointing. Like when you watch your title-chasing football team win 4-1 on the last day of the season, only to find they have missed out on the championship. Or when you listen to the new album from your favourite band and it's better than anything you have heard in months, but is still not quite as amazing as their earlier work (I'm looking at you LCD Soundsystem).

That is the unmistakeable feeling provoked by Theresa May's much-anticipated environment speech and the accompanying 25 Year Plan for Nature. It was a good and hugely welcome speech, and it is a good and hugely welcome plan. And yet, there is something crucial missing, both in terms of what is needed to genuinely tackle the UK's many environmental challenges and what is needed if the government is serious about appealing to green-minded younger voters.

Before addressing these flaws it would be churlish not to recognise all that is good about the government's green blitz. Yes, it is long overdue. Yes, it involves the revival of policies such as an extended plastic bag levy that were proposed by the Lib Dems and blocked by the Conservatives. And yes, it has only come about because of last year's humbling election result - without the Tories' well documented travails with younger voters today's plan would no doubt have been the exercise in boredom that former Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom was reportedly instructed to deliver. But none of that stops it being a sizeable and meaningful step forward for environmental policy in the UK.

Before she had even stood up, the speech was encouraging by merit of its existence. There had not been a big set piece domestic speech on the environment by a sitting Prime Minister since 2003 - a fact that reflects well on May and extremely poorly on her recent predecessors.

May was notably more fluent than she has been in recent months, perhaps as a result of her being able to talk about something she genuinely cared about and knew to be uncontentiously positive. And if many of the policies that were announced were light on detail, there were still plenty of eye- catching pledges and commitments - it was not the content-free exercise in spin it could have been.

Most importantly, there was a clear philosophical underpinning to the speech that May spelt out at length. She may lack the authority to publicly reprimand her climate sceptic, Trumpian Tory Tea Party colleagues, but make no mistake, this speech was a clear rebuke to their thinking and values.

Commenting on the arguments that environmental protection is antithetical to free markets and economic prosperity May was withering. "Both are wrong," she said. "They present a false choice which I entirely reject."

On the old canard that environmental regulations hamper businesses, she was equally unequivocal. "Environmental protection is a vital part of any good regulatory regime," she said. "So where government needs to intervene to ensure that high standards are met, we will not hesitate to do so."

On the prospects of a green economy that some of her colleagues regard as a Commie plot, she was clear. "The innovation and invention of a free enterprise economy will help to deliver new technology to drive a revolution in clean growth," she said. "Around the world, economies at all stages of development are embracing new low-carbon technologies and a more efficient use of resources to move onto a path of clean and sustainable growth."

On the hopes that Brexit would result in a bonfire of green red tape, there was an explicit commitment. "Let me be very clear," she said. "Brexit will not mean a lowering of environmental standards." If you listened carefully, you could perhaps hear the howls of outrage from certain Tory backbenchers drowning out the wildfowl at the London Wetland Centre. 

In addition, the various policy proposals contained in the speech and accompanying 25 Year Plan for Nature were not as weak as some critics have suggested.

Measures such as ban on avoidable plastic by 2042, a wider plastic bag levy, plastic-free aisles, a ban on single use plastic in government premises, a new network of water fountains, and a 2019 Year of the Environment might be tokenistic in nature, but they are good tokens, the kind you can trade in for cleaner beaches and rivers.

Just like the still underpowered action to tackle diesel emissions, they send signals to businesses and markets that can impact investment decisions and customer behaviour well before more stringent regulations come into play. Just ask the coffee chains that are now scrabbling to develop recyclable cups. Or M&S, which after the past week won't be wrapping slices of cauliflower in plastic again any time soon.

Other components of the plan - such as the promised call for evidence on plastic taxes, the pledge to embed the principle of 'net environmental gain' in housing and infrastructure developments, the proposed Northern Forest, the commitment to make sure all investment decisions "take into account the possible extent of climate change this century", the mooted green reforms to planning rules, and the vision for new green infrastructure standards - could all have a huge positive impact on the green economy, especially if they are pursued in tandem with Michael Gove's prosed farming subsidy reforms. As always the devil will be in the detail, but the framework is there for a drastic transformation of how business leaders, policymakers, and the planning system engages with the environment. As with the wave of consultations released after the Clean Growth Strategy, there is an opportunity to significantly strengthen the original plan.

And yet, you would be right to sense there is a 'but' coming. Because for all the encouraging rhetoric and welcome policy moves offered today, the speech was notable for its singular failure to wrestle with the glaring flaws in the government's current green strategy and the big imponderables that we will have to resolve if we are to avert a full blown environmental crisis.

Ministers and officials within government are constantly frustrated by the tendency of environmental campaigners and green businesses to attack policies as inadequate even when they represent a sizeable step in the right direction. But when you are campaigning against risks that are rightly regarded as existential, the bar for effective and praise-worthy policy is inevitably set pretty high. The government should understand and accept this. If the Prime Minister wants to invoke the future generations that will look back in horror at our wasteful use of plastic, then she has to accept that voluntary and gimmicky plastic-free aisles or vague promises to work with businesses to tackle the problem are unlikely to be regarded as sufficient.

However, the biggest frustration amongst green businesses and campaigners is how close the government is to delivering a genuinely bold and brilliant green strategy. How a relatively small number of popular policy tweaks and minimal funding commitments could turbo charge both the Clean Growth Plan and the 25 Year Plan for Nature and deliver a vision that is commensurate to the scale of the challenge. All that is required is for May to fully embrace the philosophical green economic framework she sketched out at the start of her speech and take it to its logical conclusion.

For example, May completely ducked the opportunity to explain why the government is continuing to hamper the deployment of the cheapest sources of clean energy and the most cost effective mechanisms for curbing greenhouse gas emissions - onshore wind and solar farms and energy efficiency upgrades, respectively. If "we must continue to press for sustainable economic growth, and the immense benefits it brings", why are we doing so in a way that is more inefficient and costly for the economy?

Imagine how this speech would have been received by green businesses if May had also declared that she would allow onshore wind and solar farms to compete for price support contracts in order to help hold down bills, at the same time as strengthening planning rules to ensure projects are only built in appropriate sites. Imagine if she said she had looked at the evidence and was minded to both tighten energy efficiency rules across buildings and industry and make domestic efficiency upgrades a national infrastructure priority backed by Treasury funding. Imagine if she had said it was obvious the current Clean Air Strategy was not up to scratch and as such the government would introduce both a targeted diesel scrappage scheme and back the roll out of local charging zones where councils thought them appropriate.

Similarly, May said that she wanted to look at the evidence about whether deposit schemes work, effectively deferring a decision on the one part of her plan that might spark negative headlines. But there is ample evidence that such schemes work, just as there is ample evidence more wide-ranging producer responsibility schemes and improved national co-ordination are essential to fund and optimise recycling infrastructure.

All of these policies and more could be delivered for sums that amount to a rounding error in the national accounts, while delivering huge economic and environmental benefits and being positioned in a way that commanded huge public support.

Instead, the government has again purposely avoided policies that are broadly popular with the vast majority of the public because of a self-defeating austerity strategy and a desire to appease a handful of critics in Westminster and Fleet Street.

At the same time, May's failure to acknowledge the big long term decarbonisation and environmental challenges - shipping and aviation emissions, industrial emissions, heat-related emissions, agricultural emissions, the need for negative emissions technologies, and the immaturity of circular economy models - combines with the government's continued support for fracking, its oil and gas tax breaks, and its frozen fuel duty to create the impression the government has still not really grasped the scale of the challenge or the full implications of what deep decarbonisation means for the economy.

Again, imagine how much more impressive the speech would have been if May had simply acknowledged the existence of these challenges and the unwavering logic of the carbon bubble hypothesis, before then explaining that while the government had not yet figured out its response it was working on it. It is hard to imagine a politician being so candid in a set piece speech, but it is worth noting that only yesterday New York Mayor Bill de Blasio did take some of these issues through to their logical conclusion by announcing both a comprehensive divestment strategy and legal action against fossil fuel firms.

The good news is there are reasons to hope we will not have to wait another 13 years for a Prime Minister to deliver an environment speech that builds on the encouraging progress May has made and offers a genuinely ambitious vision. Because the government's continued failure to take a full spectrum approach is bad politics, both in terms of effective governance of the country in the face of existential threats and electoral politics.

If you accept this plan was motivated in large part by the desire to appeal to those voters under 40 (it is wrong to call them 'young' voters) who broke decisively against the Tories at last year's election, then it is pretty clear the government's current plans remain insufficiently ambitious.

Much has been made of polling from Bright Blue that revealed younger voters' interest in environmental issues, but more specifically one of the main issues voters said they wanted to see politicians engage with was climate change. The three most popular policies that voters said would make them proud to support a party were generating more electricity from renewables like wind and solar, a ban on the sale of all ivory products in the UK, and incentives for people to install insulation in their homes.

In contrast, today's green media blitz from the government focused on plastic waste - a subject the Daily Mail was more than happy to campaign on because it arguably resonates with a 'waste not, want not' post-war generation, as opposed to the younger voters who will reap the whirlwind from inadequate climate policies. 

These younger voters are savvy enough to see both the Conservative's historic scepticism towards renewable energy and the inconsistencies in the government's decarbonisation plans and continue to favour parties which, fairly or otherwise, are regarded as having more comprehensive environmental plans. 

If the Conservatives really want to build a reputation as environmental leaders then they need to present a sweeping economic strategy that meets emissions targets, visibly invests in the environment, and ditches counterproductive high carbon and environmentally damaging policies. They need to embrace popular policies and be honest about the areas where further innovation and fundamental reform will be required over the coming decades. And they need to face down critics of environmental action, who, let's be honest, are not about to go out and vote for Jeremy Corbyn no matter how frustrated they get at the government's environmental strategy.

Most of all they need to follow through on the rationale for clean economic growth May so effectively elucidated this morning and deliver the full spectrum environmental strategy they are so close to delivering. May was within touching distance of presenting such a vision today, which is what ultimately turned a genuinely impressive speech into a missed opportunity. Or a verpasste gelegenheit in German.

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