by Claudia Carter
Recent political changes have made one thing clear, when it comes to discussions regarding the Environment and Climate change, the talk is weak and the walk in tiny steps, confused or on a retracting path. The Brexit vote waved goodbye to EC membership – for some plausible concerns but largely a fog of nebulous ‘facts’, figures and fairy-tales. But the lack of informed debate, transparency and ‘good news’ continues. The last few weeks have been a political spectacle and a series of short-lived headlines, reporting (or not) one incisive event after another. In terms of decision-making, some interesting and worrying characteristics keep occurring. While change is unavoidable it is not necessarily always for the better as a mixture of new and older changes, in my view, signal.
- BBC website
Let’s start with something seemingly quite banal, such as the revamp of the BBC website just over a year ago. The dedicated Environment section, which was useful and informative, disappeared and was absorbed into a ‘Science & Environment’ section. Working with smaller screen portable devices, of course only the Science ‘bit’ appears. So why I am so miffed about it? First, ‘Environment’ now comes second and in association with ‘Science’. This is different to reality where the environment forms the fundamental base for livelihoods and actually pervades our economic and much of our social and cultural activities. Lumping it with science hence to me signalled reporting environmental issues, challenges and news as a ‘research’ matter or interesting facts and evidence somewhere down the line feature rather than as a prime concern. The ‘Business’ section now comes first, followed by ‘Politics’ and ‘Technology’. There may be entirely sensible, well-argued reasons for why this change has occurred, but, at a deeper level, this could be taken as a warning signal of how we consider the Environment; and the emphasis and ‘framing’ of news has sit with me uneasily ever since, to the extent that I prefer to use other news channels and websites to get a more balanced and wider perspective on current affairs, research and debates around the world.
- Brexit debate and decision
The range of topics and debates on whether or not to leave the European Union seemed rather shallow in the lead-up to the referendum on 23 June. Maybe this is partly due to my not having a TV or not being a regular newspaper consumer, tending to use web-based news sites and Twitter feeds. There seemed little insightful or detailed coverage on the BBC website. One had to search and dig to find balanced and in-depth information on specific blog sites of organisations or academics who were deeply concerned about the implications of remaining or leaving the EU.
I also had the opportunity to attend a referendum debate held in mid-June at the local secondary school was maybe not so untypical of the wider situation. The school’s debating club had recruited my local MP Gisela Stuart and Doug Morgan (Lexit) on the ‘Leave’ side and Kate Godfrey and Sir Albert Bore for ‘Remain’. And this also highlighted some interesting emphasis and styles in debate, ranging from quite personal attacks, to passionate – yet quite limited – arguments, to calm brief observations.
A strong case was made that much of the EC operations were unaccountable, heavily neo-liberal and prolonged negotiations often resulting in unsatisfactory outcomes. These were largely general assertions though, rather than a convincing range of specific cases. For example, Gisela Stuart was heavily relying on her own experience and specific case of negotiations on the common currency which deeply disillusioned her. The Lexit campaign representative passionately spoke about his worries about the social and economic consequences for wider society if we stayed trapped in EC neo-liberal policies and politics. However, the alternative was simplistically coached as lobbying the UK government for a more equitable and fairer policies. Really? If anything, I saw most European countries as more active than UK citizens in lobbying, for example, against the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership; see e.g. Williams 2015) and other free-trade policies that seem to largely benefit big business and industry, also enabling large corporations to take governments to court over policies designed for environmental and wider social benefits rather than profit-making executives. The remain side also had some powerful arguments regarding the money and regulations that made the UK a fairer and better place, and where European investment in infrastructure had helped many cities in their regeneration efforts, when UK public expenditure was not forthcoming.
While the panel and several audience members raised valuable and insightful questions relating to economic prosperity, levels of immigration, racism, refugees, sovereignty and women’s rights, the implications for environmental agendas and achievements were conspicuous by their absence. Working in the environmental field and focusing on environmental decision-making I consider EU policies to have overall done more good than harm and had been proud of how the UK had made serious efforts to improve environmental legislation.
Now that Brexit happened, Parliament voted to start afresh being able to cherry-pick regulations in line with what I assume will be the strongest (and probably neo-liberal oriented) lobby groups. But the worries of what this will mean for the environment and climate change action do not stop there.
- DECC no more – BEIS ahoy
On 14 July there was an announcement that the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is to be disbanded. It was a very quiet and brief piece of news, pretty much buried behind other events and quickly never mentioned again. DECC was established in 2008 and signalled the commitment by the UK government to be a leading nation on the transition to a low carbon economy and climate change mitigation and adaptation, though much of its budget actually went towards dealing with nuclear decommissioning and clean-up (see e.g. Evans 2015).
I heard parliamentarian speakers and researchers at conferences and other public events ‘brag’ about the UK being the first nation to adopt a climate change act. Targets for England were bold, Scotland raised the goal, and all looked like a sincere commitment. When examining the progress made on those targets, for England at least, it has, however, been more by circumstance than conscious effort. The UK was narrowly on target for carbon reductions in 2015 thanks to the economic downturn over the past years. When considering figures of overall carbon emissions around the globe, the trend is firmly on a continued up though; and “perilously close to breaking through a 1.5C upper limit for global warming, only eight months after the target was set” (McKie 2016) – if anyone remembers the Paris Agreement.
Looking at recent UK policies and guidance, and Theresa May’s voting record on climate change, they signal retracting rather than espousing carbon reductions. For example, new build homes do not have to be carbon neutral (Oldfield 2015), standards for sustainable drainage (green infrastructure) made non-statutory, government financial support for the Green Infrastructure Partnership stopped in April 2014, Feed-in-Tariffs / subsidies for renewable energy reduced (see e.g. Johnston 2016), and so the list goes on. DECC functions are now largely absorbed into the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Déjà vu. Economic and business interests seem to be more highly rated than environmental interests, and the so-called 3 legged stool of sustainability looks precariously wobbly.
In July, we have had some major changes in government appointments and among others as change in Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The new appointment, the Rt Hon Andrea Leadsom MP, appears to be a climate change sceptic and some senior figures, thinktanks, NGOs and others have expressed concern about her knowledge, instinct and priorities (see e.g. Carrington 2016). Free enterprise thinking, cheap production at environmental costs may benefit some but will have a rather hefty and possibly irreversible environmental price tag for this and future generations.
- Senior positions in agencies
The choice of leaders who are base or have a strong interest in the realm of business, industry and finance is nothing new, however. Most non-departmental environmental bodies have now chief executives of a conservative leaning and strong business interests and industry links.
- Influence on government
While environmental lobbying has had its successes and environmental NGOs and trusts often part, or at least consulted in, decision-making, there is much evidence that the Finance and Industry sectors have a proportionally much greater influence on UK policies and decisions. With many citizens being relatively apolitical and unquestioning what is happening in the decision-making quarters, be it by nature or by lack of time with being ‘trapped’ in work commitments and busy social / family lives.
Will we write, lobby, demonstrate, argue and use our vote to put the E and C back and high on the agenda?
Carrington, D. (2016) Concerns mount over Andrea Leadsom’s suitability for environmental role, The Guardian online, Monday 18 July 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jul/18/concerns-mount-over-andrea-leadsoms-suitability-for-environment-role [accessed 7 August 2016]
Evans, S. (2015) Analysis: DECC budget details show limited scope for cuts, Carbon Brief online https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-decc-budget-details-show-limited-scope-for-cuts. Figure: http://www.carbonbrief.org/media/410250/decc-foi-2.jpg [accessed 7 August 2016]
Johnston, I. (2016) Climate change subsidy slashed by Government days after Brexit vote, Independent online, Friday 5 August 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/brexit-climate-change-renewable-energy-subsidies-cut-theresa-may-decc-eu-referendum-a7171801.html [accessed 7 August 2016]
McKie, R. (2016) Scientists warn world will miss key climate target, The Observer/The Guardian online, Saturday 6 August 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/aug/06/global-warming-target-miss-scientists-warn [accessed 7 August 2016]
Oldfield, P. (2015) UK scarps zero carbon homes plan, The Guardian online, Friday 10 July 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/10/uk-scraps-zero-carbon-home-target [accessed 7 August 2016]
Williams, L. (2015) What is the TTIP? And six reasons why the answer should scare you. Independent online, Tuesday 6 October 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/what-is-ttip-and-six-reasons-why-the-answer-should-scare-you-9779688.html [accessed 7 August 2016]