There is no question that it has been a turbulent year in British politics. Brexit has created a variety of serious challenges, not least the fact that many of the UK’s current environmental and energy regulations have been influenced at a European level. Alongside this, an unexpected general election has slowed – but not stalled – progress on the transition towards building a sustainable, low carbon economy.
The uncertainty around Britain’s future outside the European Union has raised a number of thorny issues. For example, the future of the nuclear industry – already facing serious scrutiny in the face of continued cost overruns and delays to Hinkley Point C – has been thrown further into doubt by the impending departure from European atomic energy community, Euratom.
Similarly, the future of the natural environment is very much up for grabs as Britain leaves the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy. The draft 25-year plan for the natural environment by Defra provides hope that this will be done in a way that improves the health of land and seas around Britain. But bold pledges are not yet matched with clear policies to achieve them.
One bright spot is that the fifth carbon budget was passed by Parliament, meeting the requirements of the Climate Change Act and providing long-term certainty on UK emissions targets beyond 2030. And, thanks to the rapid decline in coal use, UK carbon emissions have dropped to a level not seen in normal circumstances since the 1890s. Although it is worrying that the Government’s Clean Growth Plan, setting out how to actually deliver on these goals, has faced repeated delays in publication.
The past year also saw the launch of a forward-looking Industrial Strategy, with one of its central pillars focusing on the need to drive clean growth. The previous Government’s Green Paper on the subject set out clear support for important future technologies where the UK has the opportunity to be a world leader, including offshore wind, energy storage and electric vehicles. In particular, the offshore wind sector is showing great potential – the fruits of over a decade of investment, much of which was driven by strong government support for the nascent industry.
And within Parliament, it is heartening to see select committees have continued their excellent work scrutinising the Government and asking tough questions. Recent work has helped to draw attention to important environmental challenges such as the impact of microplastics, packaging waste, soil health and air quality.
All things considered, the good news is that within Parliament there is still a strong cross-party consensus on the importance of protecting the natural environment and continuing to take action on climate change, both in the UK and overseas. However, over the coming year it is crucial that good intentions are backed up with genuine progress. Brexit will remain a distraction, but it should not be an excuse for inaction.