The state of UK politics couldn’t be more chaotic for the environment

British Prime Minister Theresa May
(c) Jim Mattis (DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jette Carr)

Grantham Institute Director of Policy and Translation, Alyssa Gilbert, sums up the situation in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for climate change and environmental policy, at the current time between the 2017 General Election results and the start of Brexit negotiations with the European Union.

This blog is brought to you by A, B, C, D and E. Five letters that could spell chaos for climate change and the environment following the UK General Election 2017.

A mere six weeks ago, pollsters and the mainstream media had the Conservative Party down to increase their majority, and secure a safe parliamentary margin for Prime Minister Theresa May to govern the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in seemingly whatever direction she, and her advisors, preferred.

At the time of writing this blog, however, the political leadership of the UK is in disarray, with no overall majority government, and much speculation over the political outlook for the months ahead. It currently looks is likely that we will see Mrs May continue as PM with some kind of support from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland.

While political experts continue to analyse what this election result means for the country as a whole, I wanted to highlight a few changes that relate to climate change and the environment.

A is for Advisors

Downing Street
(c) Kathryn Yengel

The first heads to roll following the election result were two of Mrs May’s key advisors: Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. Mr Timothy, in particular, was understood to have contempt for the UK’s Climate Change Act, so was no friend of environmental protection. Social media users have been circulating a presentation given by his successor, the former Member of Parliament for Croydon Central, Gavin Barwell, which indicates a deep level of literacy on this subject. However, as Minister for Housing he failed to pursue legislation that would require all new homes to be carbon-neutral. Indeed, his voting track record indicates a lack of support for actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including voting to remove renewable energy exemption from the Climate Change Levy.  Only time will tell whether this change in advisor will genuinely be a change for the better.

B is for Brexit

This election had been billed as an opportunity for the electorate to provide May with a mandate to negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU. Until now, she was proposing a ‘Hard Brexit’; common parlance for a clean split from all EU policies and practices, but the results do not appear to have provided this resounding endorsement. Commentators say that a change in leadership style following the election results could either soften, or slow, or alter the Brexit process in some way. A large quantity of our environmental legislation is enshrined in EU law, so the manner in which this is transferred to UK legislation will make a huge difference to important matters like clean water and beaches, electricity generation and connections with the mainland, air pollution, and schemes to limit greenhouse gas emissions. It remains to be seen how this will progress, so we have written some interesting discussion pieces on the matter. Unfortunately, any change in approach to the Brexit negotiations is likely to absorb even more time and attention from government and the Civil Service, meaning that there is less time to focus on pressing climate and environment actions.

C is for Cabinet

The House of Commons Chamber
(c) Parliamentary Copyright

In the short term, while a few changes have been made to Mrs May’s cabinet, Greg Clark MP, Secretary of State in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), remains in place. Given his continuation of service, Mr Clark has been deeply involved planning what needs to be done to achieve our commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change, and further developments in key policies like the national industrial strategy. The need is pressing as urgent action to limit climate change will make its effects less extreme and costly to handle, so with any luck we might soon see the government’s long-awaited emissions reductions plan. The Member of Parliament for the Devizes Constituency Claire Perry is replacing Nick Hurd as Minister for Climate Change, and whilst this change unhelpfully means we will must now bring the latest evidence for action on tackling climate change to a new Minister, at least she has shown some positive record in this area.

D is for DUP

The DUP has been known to express views that global warming is not caused by greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, and that any plans to reduce carbon dioxide are green propaganda. Until we know the nature of the deal that has been struck, we don’t know how these views will play out in the wider Parliament. Fortunately, the combined number of DUP and Conservative MPs are unlikely to be able to topple any climate change legislation, and it is already emerging that the DUP has more important priorities than their antipathy for environmental protection.

E is for Environment Minister

Michael Gove at Policy Exchange delivering his keynote speech 'The Importance of Teaching'
(c) Policy Exchange

The reshuffle sees Michael Gove take the helm at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affair (Defra). In 2013, as Education Secretary, he was reportedly keen to drop climate change from the geography national curriculum, where its study centres largely on its effects on the environment and human society, and since the EU Referendum he became infamous for his disregard of experts. Hopefully he will take this opportunity to make progress of one of the department’s most important responsibilities, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Many are hoping it will be reformed with an economically and environmentally-sound replacement ahead of the break from EU legislation. Conservationists will also be watching to see if Mr Gove will finally release the government’s long-overdue 25-Year Environment Plan.

At the Grantham Institute, we represent the breadth and depth of Imperial College London work in climate change and the environment. In these uncertain times, we are communicating scientific knowledge with the Members of Parliament, their advisors and Civil Servants, to support global leadership in reducing and solving environmental challenges.

As the people in public office settle into their new roles, we continue to take stock of the situation, and are happy to share our insights with those in Imperial’s global community, who share our goal for a low-carbon, sustainable world.

To hear more about the work on climate change and the environment at Imperial College London, anyone is invited to sign up to receive our weekly update of news, views and events.

To work with us more closely to achieve these goals through science, health, engineering, business and policy, Imperial staff are invited to sign up to the Grantham Affiliates scheme to access funding, training, and other opportunities.


One thought on “The state of UK politics couldn’t be more chaotic for the environment

  1. F is for fracking, and sometimes ‘non-fracking’. Tucked away in the pre-election Conservative manifesto, it has barely been noticed. The manifesto promised that all ‘non-fracking’ oil and gas activities would be fast-tracked as ‘permitted developments’, thus not requiring the local scrutiny of planning permission – in the way that you don’t need to bother the planners with details of your garden shed.

    ‘Non-fracking’ nowadays applies to all the licensed areas of the South East (although the intention is probably to frack at a later stage). Across the Weald of Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire, oil companies are set to acidise (rather than frack) unyielding carbonate-rich strata within the shale. In North Lincolnshire they want to acidise ‘tight’ gas-bearing sandstone formations. Acidising (ultimately acid fracking) poses most of the same negatives and risks as fracking, and likewise requires a great multiplicity of wells. But even acid fracking, under pressure, is unlikely to be efined as fracking. Under the new UK legal definition of fracking in the 2015 Infrastructure Act (strategically based on the amount of fluid used), 44% of wells that have been fracked in the USA would not count as having been fracked this side of the Pond.

    If companies can claim ‘no intention to frack’, they duck under all the rules and regulations, poor as they are, concerning fracking. That means, as shadow energy minister Alan Whitehead pointed out recently in the Commons, that the Conservatives WOULD allow fracking-like activities from wells drilled from the surface of National Parks and other special areas.

    It will be interesting to see whether Conservative dreams of a non-fracking free-for-all make it to the Queen’s Speech.

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