A Green Future?

Policy Intern, Rachael Treharne, takes a closer look at the 25-Year Environment Plan.

Rachael Treharne is Hope for the Future's Climate Policy Intern. Find out more about Rachael at our  'Who are we' page . 

Rachael Treharne is Hope for the Future's Climate Policy Intern. Find out more about Rachael at our 'Who are we' page

Last week the Prime Minister, alongside Michael Gove, finally unveiled ‘A Green Future’; a 25 year plan for protecting and enhancing the environment, originally due for publication in 2016. Its contents indicate how nature will be valued following our exit from the EU. This has implications not just for conservation, but for sectors including farming and public health, and for efforts to address global environmental problems such as plastic waste.

The 151 page document lays out a strong, positive vision for taking a more holistic approach to environmental protection, recognising that the integrity of the natural world is central to a healthy economy, as well as to human wellbeing. It contains some important commitments, notably to retain key principles underlying EU environmental law and to establish an independent watchdog which will hold the government to account.

However, its description by Boris Johnson as a ‘ground-breaking step to protect our planet’ is more than a little grandiose. Despite signals that the plan does indicate genuine intention to tackle environmental issues from air pollution to soil health, it is non-binding, lacks urgency, and is, in places, vague.

What is in the plan?

Six key areas are covered: sustainable land use, nature restoration, health and wellbeing, pollution and waste, the marine environment, and tackling global environmental issues.

Although some of the aims within each of these reiterate EU or other existing targets, there are also new objectives and ideas with the potential to make a real difference to the state of UK nature. There is a target to eliminate all avoidable waste by 2050, and all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. There are promises to reward farmers for good environmental stewardship and to strengthen environmental standards in planning rules. There is also a commitment to provide an extra half a million hectares of wildlife habitat through a ‘Nature Recovery Network’, and a range of proposals to promote nature as a “pathway to good health and wellbeing”, including considering prescribing environmental therapies through the NHS.

This tone and direction is very welcome. However the devil is in the detail; the plan does not provide any legal or financial basis to ensure it will actually be delivered, and provides little clarity on how progress will be measured. Arguably, it also risks complacency. The UK is now considered to be among the most nature-depleted countries in the world: more than half of our species are declining, with 12% extinct or threatened with extinction. In this context, a greater focus on concrete actions to be taken in the immediate future might have been expected from the environment plan.

Where does climate change fit in?

Remarkably the document states: “We will take all possible action to mitigate climate change, while adapting to reduce its impact”. However, despite a separate government report clearly showing that the UK is on track to miss our existing climate change targets, the new 25 year environment plan neither recognises this nor proposes any concrete measures to close the gap between ambition and reality.

Further, where climate-related aims are included, they suffer from a lack of detail. Commitments such as that to “help developing nations… by providing assistance” will require greater ambition and clarity over the scale and form of this assistance if the UK is to maintain its reputation as a global leader in climate action.

What next?

The 25 year environment plan could be a turning point in the condition of our natural environment and its contribution to human wellbeing. Alternatively, unless it is followed up by concrete action and legislation, it could represent little more than good intentions. To help build the positive vision in the plan into something more tangible, you could ask your MP to:

  • Support a new Environment Act. This would embed the objectives described in the plan into UK law and establish systems to measure and independently report on progress.
  • Support clear targets to protect our environment in the near as well the long term.
  • Fully consider the impacts of climate change, described in the plan as “the most serious long-term risk to the environment”, on UK nature and its relationship with human wellbeing.