General election 2017

26th April 2017

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Alison Smith

Low carbon and environmental priorities.

With just over a week having passed since the prime minister’s announcement of a snap election, those interested in politics and policy are eagerly awaiting the release of party manifestos. While low carbon and environmental policies are not expected to feature heavily, there is popular support for strong action in this area.

Recent polling by Conservative think tank Bright Blue highlighted that the majority of Conservatives supported maintaining or strengthening the main EU environmental regulations post-Brexit and that renewables were the most popular source for electricity generation. This week business leaders argued that halving global carbon emissions by 2040 is possible but pressed governments, investors and businesses to act to accelerate the transition to a low carbon energy system.

This election is an opportunity for each party to set out their vision of what post-Brexit Britain will look like. Ambitious and stable environmental policies should feature in order to ensure that the UK remains resilient and competitive and can enhance the state of its natural environment.

We have seen an impressive reduction in carbon emissions in recent years – by 38% from 1990 to 2015, while GDP has risen by roughly 65% over the same period. The costs of new technologies have reduced significantly and the UK has developed supply chains and competitive advantage in areas such as offshore wind, ultra-low emission vehicles, energy efficiency services and smart ICT solutions.

The Office for National Statistics estimates that the UK’s low carbon and renewable energy economy employed 447,000 people in 2015 and delivered a turnover in excess of £77bn. Much of this investment is taking place in areas of the UK that have been lagging behind economically. For instance, MHI Vestas’ investment in an advanced manufacturing facility for offshore wind turbine blades on the Isle of Wight, which has now started exporting its 80m blades to Germany, has resulted in hundreds of people being employed in the sector and positive impacts across the wider economy.

The new government will need to urgently publish a detailed clean growth plan that sets out how the UK will attract affordable private sector investment in low carbon projects and meet its emission reduction targets into the 2030s. For example, it should set meaningful targets for reductions in energy consumption from our homes and buildings. This can be supported through a gradual tightening of energy efficiency standards and the introduction of new fiscal incentives such as stamp duty rebates. We also must see the reinstatement of a nearly zero carbon target for all new buildings.

Furthermore a clear action plan for the decarbonisation of heat is required. In the shorter term, this will involve the continued roll out electric heat pumps in properties off the gas grid, the development of heat networks in urban areas and large scale pilot projects to test the use of new technologies such as hydrogen. Building up a robust evidence base will allow government to make key strategic decisions on the wider decarbonisation of heat in the 2020s.

It will also be important for the new government to develop a resource efficiency strategy as we prepare to leave the EU. Standards should be developed that require products sold in the UK to be designed with resource efficiency in mind to minimise waste and ensure consumers benefit from better quality products. These standards should be as good as, if not better, than those in the EU Circular Economy Package to avoid putting British businesses and consumers at a disadvantage.

Finally, the environment department (Defra) should publish the framework for its 25-year environment plan as soon as possible after the general election. This plan will need to help support the increase of finance into projects that enhance the state of our natural environment and the long-term benefits it provides to society and the economy. Government can help unlock new markets in ecosystem services via smart regulation or lead by example through its procurement policy.

Brexit will open up opportunities to make improvements in areas such as farming subsidies but the UK’s withdrawal must not lead to any weakening of our environmental protections. The UK must aim for a high standard economy and continue to show international leadership on issues such as climate change. The international low carbon market is already worth over $5.5tn with major investments from rapidly developing economies such as China, India, Mexico and South Africa. A government that supports the strengthening of the UK’s competitive advantage in the low carbon economy will help ensure UK businesses are best placed to capitalise on these global export opportunities.


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