On 28th January 2018, Lord Gardiner of Kimble hosted a debate in the House of Lords “That this House takes note of A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment and of Her Majesty’s Government’s stated goal of working with communities and businesses to improve the environment within a generation so that it is left in a better state than that in which it was found.” The Bishop of Salisbury, Rt Revd Nick Holtam, spoke in the debate:
The Lord Bishop of Salisbury: My Lords, I very much welcome this ambitious and attractive plan, which is good for the environment, the economy and quality of life. The Lords spiritual have a strong interest in the environment out of a concern for the care of God’s creation as well as the opportunity stated in the Natural Capital Committee’s advice to Government in September 2017 as part of the preparation for this plan. It said:
“The Plan is a huge economic and social opportunity that can genuinely transform the natural environment, support the growth of the economy, allow citizens to reconnect with the health, wellbeing, spiritual and educational benefits of interacting with nature, and gift our children a richer, better and more resilient natural inheritance. With a natural capital approach, the environment should no longer be regarded as an obstacle to development; rather, a healthy environment is the basis of sustainable economic growth”.
My former colleague and now near neighbour, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, reminded us regularly in the diocese of London that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. There is a spirituality about this as well as a technical challenge.
A Green Future is a significant change of mindset and very much to be welcomed. The plan will be the basis for holding Her Majesty’s Government to account. Having set the direction, there now needs to be considerable work to translate ambition into action. Out of 44 success criteria in the plan, only 11 are what could be called smart objectives. As currently set out, these success criteria go only a small way to explain how the plan’s actions will serve to meet the goals. For example, what does,
“Achieving zero avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042”,
mean? What is avoidable plastic waste? Compare that with the European Union’s less ambitious but much more specific policy announced just a few days after the publication of A Green Future that,
“all plastic packaging … will be recyclable by 2030”.
To aid this increase in recycling rates, the European Commission will provide €100 million of finance to develop smarter and more recyclable plastics. How much finance will Her Majesty’s Government commit to making these developments happen?
The ambition in relation to plastics is laudable, but there needs to be more to boost our stalled recycling rates. In 2015, they fell for the first time in more than a decade. There is a proposal to extend the 5p plastic bag charge, but nothing about charging for disposable coffee cups, of which only one in 400 is recycled. The plans do not include a bottle collection scheme. Every day, 38.5 million plastic bottles and 20 million aluminium cans are sold across the UK. Evidence from other countries such as the US, Norway and Germany shows that introducing a simple deposit on plastic bottles and cans can raise collection rates above 90% and reduce litter, so it is disappointing that the plan does not follow the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee for a legislated deposit returns scheme for plastic drinks bottles. The Scottish Government committed to that at the end of last year. Will this be revisited by Her Majesty’s Government?
The House will welcome the Government’s intention to update the plan at least every five years, develop a set of indicators on metrics to monitor progress by the end of 2018 and report annually to Parliament.
Currently, as has already been pointed out, the EU has the power to fine the UK for breaches of environmental standards. It is not yet clear whether the proposed UK environmental watchdog will have the same power, so I have sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and those who have suggested that there needs to be an environment Act to do for the restoration of nature what the Climate Change Act is doing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; that is, by creating stronger accountability for such an important matter.
Three further things worth commenting on are: timing, because this is urgent; policy integration, because we need joined-up thinking and action; and developing an international approach, because environmental matters do not keep national boundaries. They are going to need much stronger handling than is suggested in the report. For example, the Paris Agreement on climate change recognises the urgency of the task. We are still a long way from agreements that will meet the two degrees Celsius target, yet we know that, to be effective, change needs to be front-loaded. Christian Aid and CAFOD, the British churches’ aid agencies, have identified that the UK Government’s overall spending in developing countries continues to be more on fossil fuels than renewable energy. As was noted in the recent debate about green finance, there is an urgent need to scale up financing in support of a big shift to renewable energy both in public finance and private finance.
In housing, there is a laudable ambition to build many new homes. For them to be energy efficient with low or zero-carbon emissions, that will not be achieved by deregulation. Specific targets need to be set for different parts of the plan which can identify quick wins and recognise the most urgent actions so that we develop changed actions and new habits capable of furthering this admirable plan.