UK’s 25 Year Environment Plan

Spotlight Activity: UK’s 25 Year Environment Plan

The 25 Year Environment Plan, launched in January after over a year’s delay, lays out the government’s long-term goals for preserving and improving the environment. Lacking ambition, funding, and legislative substance, the plan falls woefully short of bridging the vast gap between current UK climate policy and the commitments required if the UK is to meet its legally binding emissions reduction target of 57% by 2032.

The plan pledges to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by 2042, but stops short of calling for an end to single-use plastics, or the implementation of bottle deposit schemes, despite vocal support from environment secretary Michael Gove in October. What constitutes ‘avoidable’ waste is not clearly defined, leaving plenty of room to shirk responsibilities.

With transport now the leading cause of emissions in the UK, the promise to ban the sale of fossil fuel powered cars by 2042 lacks urgency and detail, as does the commitment to plant more than 50 million trees in a ‘Northern Forest’ between Liverpool and Hull in the same timeframe. Such grand numbers may seem impressive, but India has twice in the last few years planted this many trees in just 12 hours. These distant targets, placed far beyond the political careers of the politicians championing them, do not adequately address the scale of action required to reduce UK emissions and must be brought forward.

Both Gove and the Committee on Climate Change have hailed Brexit as an opportunity to improve on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, which does not directly target emissions reduction in agriculture. However, the 25 Year Environment Plan does not once mention methane produced by livestock, a key driver of UK emissions.

Also absent from the plan is an explanation of how government support for fracking is compatible with the plan’s promise to protect and improve water quality. Fracking is finally set to commence in England at the Preston New Road site next month. These key omissions reflect the government’s unwillingness to take system-wide action to reduce emissions, a point further evidenced by the UK’s mere 1% reduction in emissions since 2012 in all sectors except power and waste.

The 25 Year Environment Plan is bereft of short-term actionable policies on which the current government can be judged. The pledge to extend the highly effective 5p carrier bag charge to small retailers is a notable exception, but such legislation has not yet materialised.

Nor have funding commitments. In the two months since the plan’s publication, the government has set aside only £15.7m in extra funding – less than a penny per person per year. Meanwhile, budget cuts have forced a key agency tasked with tackling plastic waste to cut 10% of its staff. Combined with the government’s recent rejection of a ‘latte levy’ on disposable cups, current indications suggest that the government is unlikely to back up its vague plans with meaningful immediate action.

Status: Standing Still

It may be unfair to criticise the government too harshly for what was always intended to be a long-term strategy. Yet, given that the plan fails to even provide any legal framework with which to hold the government’s targets to account, it would be foolish to lavish praise prematurely. The government’s environmental credentials will become clearer over the next year as shorter-term strategies concerning waste, air, the bioeconomy, and transport decarbonisation are published. Until then, the jury’s out.

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