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What The Queen's Speech Had To Offer On Tackling Our Environmental Challenges

21/06/2017 16:38
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This was a Queen's Speech for Brexit, we were assured. And indeed Brexit dominated it, with a combination of politics and narrow bandwidth squeezing out some much needed legislative action on environmental protection. Let's be clear - we simply cannot wait another two years before we start tackling the illegal air pollution harming our health and the mountain of plastic flowing into our seas. These threats cannot be 'paused' while the government sorts out the Brexit talks. We should remember that, in theory, the next time we get a legislative programme announced by the Queen, the UK will have left the EU.

So how far did the Speech go in addressing the key environmental challenges Britain faces?

First, concerns over the threat to our environmental standards from deregulation after Brexit remain unassuaged. The briefing from government on the so-called Great Repeal Bill contains little more detail than we got nearly three months ago. Critical questions on how standards will be maintained and enforced on issues like air pollution and nature protection remain unanswered. The government notes on the Bill still give ministers the power to tamper with crucial environmental safeguards through secondary legislation without full scrutiny from parliament. If the new Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, is serious about his welcomed promises on improving our environmental protections, then he should allow our elected representatives to have the final word on it.

But, environmentally speaking, the Speech had one showstopper worth highlighting. Amidst all the Brexit stuff, Theresa May managed to insert a line about her government commitment to implementing the Paris climate agreement. Since this comes with no legislative requirements attached, it's significant that May has chosen the Queen's Speech to send a signal that Britain will follow other leading economies in supporting the Paris accord.

Coupled with the absence of any mention of a Donald Trump state visit, this seems a good omen. Britain cannot afford to follow Trump down the path of anti-science and isolation that's costing the US prestige and influence. Climate change is an issue that impinges on the well-being of everyone on the planet, and May should not roll out the red carpet for Trump while he's turning his back on the rest of the world. To show real global leadership, May should go further and use the G20 summit as an opportunity to put pressure on Trump alongside other world leaders.

There was also a reference in the Speech to the Industrial Strategy. To be genuinely forward-thinking, this blueprint for Britain's industrial future will need to have clean energy at its heart. As the cost of renewables like wind and solar keeps going down, it's high time the UK government helped the country seize the enormous potential of this booming industry. Combined with energy efficiency, storage, and interconnectors, renewables offer the best prospect for keeping energy bills down and jobs up, not to mention creating trade opportunities for post-Brexit Britain.

Among the many manifesto promises that have been dropped, there is one whose demise will be greeted with relief by many. The Conservative manifesto outlined plans to allow fracking firms to go ahead with exploratory drilling without the need for a planning permission. This would not only have made it much easier for companies to start fracking, but it would also have stripped local authorities of any say in the matter, bypassing the legitimate concerns of many communities.

The Industrial Strategy also extends to trying to make the UK a 'world leader' in electric vehicles, so much so that there's an 'Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill' to help it along, which is welcome indeed. However, the scale of ambition seems pretty limited. Installing more charging points will help some consumers switch to electric cars, but there's nothing in the Speech that signals a step change or any urgency from the government in clearing our city centres of toxic diesel pollution or getting to grips with transport's contribution to climate change.

Finally, there will be new Brexit-related bills on agriculture and on fisheries, addressing two areas where EU influence on our environment has been decidedly less than positive. Both bills are replete with opportunity but government briefings are thin on detail despite a whole year having elapsed since the EU referendum. The new Fisheries Bill provides a unique opportunity to deliver a fairer deal for many struggling coastal communities while also increasing protection for our iconic marine wildlife. The Agriculture Bill could set the framework for rewarding farmers for treating the land in a way that does public good like flood prevention, nature enhancement, soil preservation, rather than for just being paid for owning it.

Finally, it's a shame that Brexit appears to have squeezed out any mentions of a ban on the tiny plastic beads ('microbeads') found in many consumer products, which the government promised and consulted the public on. This measure has strong public backing, is relatively easy to implement, and offers the government a real opportunity to show global leadership. We hope to see it introduced into one of the other pieces of legislation announced today.

So although there are some good points about the Speech, mostly it looks like missed opportunities, and the hard choices still to be made.

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