Day one in the job and Theresa May wasted no time in resetting the direction of the UK’s environmental policy. Whether her decisions to abolish the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and to install her former leadership rival Andrea Leadsom at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were taken for reasons of political expediency or on principle, it sent out an inauspicious signal to environmentalists. With a majority in parliament and a Labour party consumed by internal divisions, will this finally be the moment when the Conservatives succeed in ditching “the green crap” as a frustrated David Cameron is alleged to have instructed his advisors as PM?
The Brexit negotiations will dominate this parliament. While the political focus is likely to be on free movement and the UK’s access to the single market, the impact on environmental policy on everything from climate change to waste management could prove even more significant in the long term.
It is no accident that environmentalists were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the European Union. The likes of Friends of the Earth, Green party MP Caroline Lucas and even Boris Johnson’s own father joined under the umbrella of Environmentalists for Europe. Their support for remain recognised not only that many of the thorniest environmental questions are best tackled at a transnational level but also the EU’s particular contribution to addressing successfully those questions over previous decades. It is the EU which established the world’s first and largest international carbon trading system and which has imposed exacting standards on clean beaches, habitat protection, the disposal of hazardous waste as well as the hard wiring of environmental impact assessment into decisions about planning and infrastructure. These EU rules and norms, which were automatically incorporated into UK law, embedded a culture of environmental protection and awareness into our domestic decision-making.
It is this culture of environmental thinking which is threatened by Brexit and a possible rightward shift under the new government. Brexit has the potential to unravel regulatory standards, as the UK will no longer be bound by EU environmental laws. More broadly, the worrying denigration of expertise during the referendum campaign is at odds with the scientific, evidence-based approach generally adopted towards environmental policy within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and formerly within DECC.
In this context it is difficult to see May’s abolition of DECC, just months after the signing of the Paris climate deal, as anything other than a downgrading of climate change as a political priority. DECC’s functions, which included responsibility for meeting carbon targets, participating in international climate talks and administering green energy subsidies have been transferred to the business department. Such symbolic gestures matter in politics. If the establishment of DECC by the previous Labour government sent a message to the civil service, industry and society at large that the country was serious about tackling the problem, then its abolition achieves the opposite.
Against this worrying background, how should Labour respond? First, Labour must signal that it considers the environment and tackling climate change a priority. Defending environmental protections and advocating greater government intervention is not only a moral imperative, it makes electoral sense too; appealing to greens, liberals and more Conservative-minded conservationists. One means of doing this might be to create a specific shadow brief for climate change. Like the creation of a shadow portfolio for mental health (where no specific position exists within the cabinet), this would draw attention to Labour’s focus on the issue and could be useful in holding the relevant government ministers within the new department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to account.
Second, even when Labour is in opposition in Westminster it should use its local government power bases to make an environmental difference and demonstrate the party’s green credentials. Cities and devolved administrations are increasingly becoming sites for environmental innovation. Examples of good practice already exist – such as Sadiq Khan’s latest commitment to an ultra-low emission zone in London or Labour-controlled Bristol’s innovative programme of energy reduction and green investment. These should be used as models to put pressure on the government and explain what Labour could do if in power nationally.
Environmental problems can seem to the public to be remote, or otherwise unsolvable. By demonstrating that Labour in local government is committed to finding practical solutions – congestion schemes, air quality improvements and protection of public green space – the party may engender positive behavioural shifts whilst establishing a reputation for competence.
Thirdly, Labour needs to engage directly in the detailed work of the Brexit negotiations and planning for what environmental regulation will look like after withdrawal. Holding the government to account will mean insisting that European environmental standards are treated as a floor rather than a ceiling. For a start, European directives incorporated into domestic regulation should be retained.
Above all, Labour should seize the opportunity to draw a clear dividing line between its approach and the government’s likely regulatory race to the bottom. In its place it should construct a political narrative around environmental policy that is both internationalist and locally relevant.