Inside Wesminster: Will government rhetoric be followed with action?

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Maxine Perella

Although a significant environmental clause has not survived a Westminster debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill, the Environment Secretary has made grand pledges on protection and enforcement while Defra is mulling a national deposit return scheme for drinks containers

At the time of writing this column, the Brexit Bill is back in parliament with various clauses and amendments being voted on. One notable defeat has been that of a new clause to ensure that environmental principles under Article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) – including the polluter pays principle –continue to apply in the UK after exit day.

Dismayed? You might well be. Concerns are growing that key environmental regulations enshrined in EU law could be lost after Brexit – at least in the short term. So I noted with interest Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s announcement that he plans to establish a new regulatory body to uphold environmental protection and enforcement standards going forward.

The devil will be in the detail, and that may come with the national policy statement that the new watchdog will release, hopefully this side of Brexit. Will the statement go even further than EU principles? Gove has suggested it will, saying that the Government has the chance to “set the gold standard for environmental science” and that the new regulator will ensure the UK becomes the “world-leading curator of the most precious asset of all, our planet”.

Light on the detail

Motivating stuff, but let’s not get too carried away yet. The publication of BEIS’s Clean Growth Strategy (CGS) in October is perhaps more worth focusing on as it represents one of the strongest signals on future government thinking around waste and resources policy in a post-Brexit era. While vague in tone (what does zero ‘avoidable’ waste by 2050 mean, exactly?) and light on detail, it does have a rather modernist feel about it.

The CGS talks a lot about decarbonisation, for instance. It makes a strong case for significantly reducing waste management emissions in order to achieve this lofty zero waste goal, which I believe is the right way forward.

You just need to look at the wider sustainability agenda to sense the urgency now when it comes to tackling greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting carbon is the key driver behind the Paris Agreement, a critical component of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and has led to the emergence of science-based targets – now considered the new approach to corporate climate leadership.

But what does that mean for this industry? Well, the CGS notes that in 2015, 4% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions were attributed to waste management – 91% of this was mainly from landfill methane. Smarter abatement of landfill emissions as well as those from other biodegradable waste treatment options such as anaerobic digestion will likely become a priority focus.

The government intends to support the industry here by investing in innovation, particularly in breakthrough technologies that can mitigate these environmental impacts. And there is serious money up for grabs. The CGS states that £2.65bn will be spent over the next four years to help decarbonise the UK economy, and around 10% of that will target natural resources and business/industry – two areas that include waste and resource efficiency.

A costly scheme?

In other news, it appears that Defra is now seriously considering introducing a national deposit return scheme for drinks containers. In October, the BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin tweeted that Gove told him a deposit scheme for the UK was “likely” and that it was just a “question of finding best one”. Meanwhile, the Welsh government has said it may introduce a DRS as early as next year.

The timing of these developments is significant, given that Scotland may struggle to introduce a deposit return scheme under the terms it wants. While the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 gives the Scottish government the authority to bring forward a scheme directed towards climate change, devolution constraints mean a scheme focused on litter might require new primary legislation.

Might Gove exploit this, and seek talks with the Scottish and Welsh governments to ascertain the possibility of introducing a UK-wide deposit return scheme? Whatever happens, I don’t expect the introduction of any scheme in the UK to be easy. Only last month, a Greenpeace investigation revealed that industry groups representing supermarkets and some of the largest food and drink brands wrote to Defra saying they were “unanimous” in their opposition to such schemes.

Out of interest, the Republic of Ireland has mooted the idea of a ‘latte levy’ on disposable coffee cups – something that won’t go down well with producers either, especially as the likes of Starbucks, Costa Coffee and McDonald’s are now involved in a cross-industry partnership to work towards a national paper cup recycling solution.

There does seem to be a resurgence in voluntary-led extended producer responsibility (EPR), whereby companies are keen to collaborate to find more closed loop solutions that can directly benefit them. If UK policy-makers do legislate for more EPR, that could undermine such entrepreneurial spirit. Mandatory versus voluntary EPR? Can a balance be struck? Wow, that’s a tough one to call.

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