Last reviewed 27 December 2019

Climate emergencies, Extinction Rebellion and 12 years to save the planet, have dominated the global media over the last twelve months. Back in the UK, gridlock over Brexit and a general election have been the main headliners, but a crack-down on waste crime, the Environment Bill, and growing concern over air pollution have also had a fair share of media attention. In this review, John Barwise looks at some of the key environmental milestones of 2019 and what businesses might expect from a new Conservative government over the next five years.

Brexit and the general election

A turbulent and often fractious year in British politics ended in December with a landslide general election victory for the Conservative party. Brexit and the Parliamentary gridlock that has dominated politics over the last twelve months is over, for now at least. We will leave the European Union by the end of January, but still have a mountain to climb to secure a trade deal by the end of the year.

Environmental commitments featured prominently in all the main party manifestos, but these were over-shadowed on the campaign trail by Brexit. Seismic policy commitments to spend billions on renewables and energy efficiency and a new Green Deal, with the thousands of extra jobs this would create, attracted very little interest in the media or on the doorstep. Even the UK’s commitment to net zero carbon by 2050 or sooner in some manifestos, barely got a mention during the election, despite the growing global concern that we are running out of time to fix the climate crisis.

Climate emergency and the doomsday scenario

The world will not end in 12 years’ time. But the science community is adamant that unless world leaders act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, the climate crisis may become irreversible. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels, falls in food production and diminishing sea ice, and all the evidence suggests this will only get worse.

The world’s warmest July on record followed the world's warmest ever June, and every year so far in the 21st century has been among the hottest on record, bar one. In a separate but related study, scientists recorded sea level rises of around 20cm over the 20th century last year, whilst ocean heatwaves have doubled between 1982 and 2016.

In March, the Environment Agency’s (EA) Chief Executive Sir James Bevan warned of increasing temperatures and drought and demand for water exceeding supply within 20-25 years, which he described as “the jaws of death.”

Throughout 2019, there has been growing pressure on world leaders to come up with plans for net zero emissions by 2050. Leading the campaign is a 16-year old Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, who inspired hundreds of thousands of school children across the globe to take to the streets over the failure of world leaders to act on action on climate change.

The UK-based environment group Extinction Rebellion (XR), organised rallies designed to cause chaos in major cities and draw media attention to the emerging crisis. It worked. Parts of London were shut down in April, and in October the global response saw cities such as Sydney, New York, Mumbai, Buenos Aires and Cape Town also facing major disruptions as climate protestors took to the streets.

The message that global warming is a real and present danger started to get through in 2019 in ways where earlier campaigns had failed. The narrative changed — it’s no longer about climate change but about climate chaos, climate crisis and climate emergency. Public opinion has shifted and demands for governments to address fossil fuels and other underlying causes of global warming have started to gather momentum.

In June, the outgoing Prime Minister, Theresa May, secured a legally binding amendment to the Climate Change 2008 Act that will require the UK to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 — the first major economy to do so. Since then more countries have committed or are aspiring to net zero.

The EU has also announced a Green New Deal for Europe with plans to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and become the first climate neutral continent by 2050. The plan, outlined by the new Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, involves an annual investment of 5% of GDP in infrastructure, agriculture, and industry. Energy targets will be raised to generate more energy from renewable sources, up to 100% by 2050, while subsidies that currently contribute to emissions in the agricultural and fisheries sectors will instead be focused on emissions reduction.

But despite the growing recognition at national and regional level that more needs to be done to prevent climate chaos, little has changed on the world stage. The UN Climate Summit (COP25), meeting in Madrid in December, failed to agree to raise climate ambition in line with rising global warming, although there was general agreement to fund further adaptation measures to support low-lying countries and others vulnerable to the worst impacts of a changing climate. President Trump is promising to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement altogether next year.

The world’s media will now turn its attention to 2020 to see if the UK can raise global ambitions when it hosts next year’s crucial climate talks (COP26) in Glasgow next November. Former Climate Minister Claire Perry O'Neill will be COP 26 president.

UK — 25 Year environment plan

At the start of the year, the Government launched its long-awaited 25 Year Environment Plan with a promise to “leave that environment in a better state than we found it.” The landmark environment plan, which backs up the Government’s earlier draft Environment Bill, lists 65 indicators designed to track changes in the state of the UK’s environmental assets, including air, water, land, seas and wildlife, with commitments to improve environmental protection and relieve the pressures from pollution disease and over exploitation etc.

Both the Environment Plan and the Bill were generally supported both by Parliament and environmental campaigners, but there was concern over how the targets system to improve air quality and reduce water pollution would work in practice. A new ‘Office for Environmental Protection (OEP)’ also came under scrutiny as MPs and others raised questions over whether it would have the power and independence to hold the Government to account when nationally agreed targets were not met.

The Environment Bill passed its second reading in October but was put on hold following the announcement of the general election. Expect to see the Environment Bill being reintroduced early in the New Year.

Waste crime still pays

Last year, the Government announced plans to step up its fight against waste crime. Fixed penalties for domestic fly-tipping were introduced with further powers given to the EA to lock up illegal sites and force rogue operators to clean up all waste. Government data shows that waste crime costs the UK economy £600m every year.

Earlier this year EA officers in Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire uncovered illegal activity at 11 waste disposal sites, and in May this year the EA and HMRC officers carried out the largest ever one-day sting operations and confirmed illegal activity at 27 waste sites across the East of England. If convicted of illegal waste activity, offenders face unlimited fines and up to 5 years in prison. The EA shuts down an average of two illegal waste sites every day.

In October, the Government awarded a further £1m of funding to support digital tracking systems help tackle waste crime in the UK and prevent illegal waste from being shipped abroad. This follows measures introduced in the Environment Bill for compulsory electronic waste tracking.

Yet despite best efforts, the EA has admitted that waste crime remains a serious problem and although the agency has closed more illegal waste sites this year — 912 compared to 812 last year — it is still discovering new sites at the same rate. This year, the EA found 896 new illegal waste sites, 5% more than the previous year.

The Environment bill, when enacted, will give the EA further powers to tackle waste crime and the Bill also introduces further measures to improve recycling, including minimising single use plastics, more effective litter enforcement and a bottle deposit return scheme. Producer responsibility rules will also be tightened to ensure producers take responsibility for the waste they create.

The air we breathe

Back in January the Government introduced its Clean Air Strategy promising to cut air pollution and limit exposure to fine particulates as part of a wider overhaul of local air quality management. Clean air has been a long-running problem for the Government, after environment law firm ClientEarth successfully proved in 2018 that existing government plans were inadequate and unlawful.

Fast forward to October 2019 and new data released by the Government revealed that 83% of UK designated clean air reporting zones (CAZs) still have illegal levels of air pollution, with more than 4 out of 5 zones showing illegally high air pollution levels.

The 2019 Clean Air Strategy sets out government plans for dealing with all sources of air pollution, including how devolved administrations are expected to contribute to emissions reductions. A further £2 million of funding has been added to help tackle air pollution and local authorities have been invited to bid for a portion of the funding to improve air quality in their areas.

Legally binding international targets have also been adopted to reduce emissions of five of the most damaging air pollutants (fine particulate matter, ammonia, nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, non-methane volatile organic compounds) by 2020 and 2030. But concerns remain over the prolonged timescale of the proposed targets and the availability of resources to tackle the problem, and the ban to stop all sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 is described as ‘too little too late’.

Moving on

The political landscape of the UK has changed significantly following an overwhelming Conservative victory at the general election. The new Government has a clear mandate to follow through on environmental commitments outlined in its manifesto.

Net zero emissions — a commitment to legally-binding net-zero emissions by 2050, in line with recommendations outlined by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). But the Government must first meet existing carbon budgets. The first three budgets to 2026 will be met, but according to the CCC, the Government will fail to do so for the fourth carbon budget for 2023-27. There are also doubts over the fifth budget (2028-2032), and whether aviation and shipping emissions should be included.

Renewables and energy efficiency — an additional 10GW of offshore wind capacity is promised by 2030, but it looks like the Government will not support onshore wind or solar power and there is no mention of energy storage. Over £9bn will be available to improve energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals, including funding for social housing and the public sector, with an additional £1bn to develop clean energy technologies.

Environment Bill — the Queen’s speech includes a promise to resurrect the Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill, which failed to reach the statute book because of the general election. The Bill will include new measures to improve air and water quality and waste management measures. It also establishes a new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), increases local powers to tackle air pollution and introduces charges for specified single use plastic items.

Environmental principles will apply across all government policies, including the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle. Public participation and access to environmental information remain in place.

Crucially, a commitment to maintain a ‘level playing field’ regarding EU environmental principles and international conventions has been omitted from the Bill and replaced by non-binding commitments in the Political Declaration. This is likely to be subject to heated debate in the coming months over what critics say are “glaring oversights” in the way future governments can be held accountable for their environmental responsibilities.

And finally….

The Conservatives won their largest majority in the House of Commons since the 1987 election under Margaret Thatcher. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has the mandate to deliver on the Conservative Party manifesto and five years to do it.

All government departments will now need to focus on how they will manage the transition out of the EU. In terms of environmental regulations and energy management, Defra and BEIS are the departments to watch, assuming these departments remain intact during early cabinet reshuffles. The passage of Defra’s proposed Environment Bill will be crucial for businesses dealing with air and water quality, land use and waste, while BEIS will continue to develop the UK’s energy policies to meet net zero commitments.

With a majority of MPs and cross-party consensus support for ambitious environmental protection measures and net zero emissions by 2050, the opportunity to push forward on these issues is there for the taking.

Brexit will no doubt continue to dominate the media as the UK prepares to leave the EU and seeks to secure a free trade deal with our European partners over the next twelve months. The one to watch will be whether the Government tries to compromise on some of its environmental legislative commitments in order to secure new trading arrangements with the US and other partners in the coming years. Watch this space.