25-year environment plan falls short

What does the UK government’s 25 year plan for the environment say? And will it really make life better for the next generation?
portrait of Paul de Zylva, Friends of the Earth campaigner
By Paul de Zylva     |     25 Jan 2018     |       11 minute read

Quick read: How does the plan measure up?

The UK government published its long-overdue plan for the environment on 11 January 2018.  'A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment' runs to 151 pages and makes promises in 10 key areas – from protecting nature, to tackling plastic pollution, to curbing climate change.

Our verdict? Long on aspiration, short on details. The string of words does not inspire confidence that ministers will make up for years of failure to take the environment seriously. Unless the government backs up its aims in law, produces the detail, and presents a clear plan to put it all into practice, this will all turn out to be more hot air.

There are obvious things the government should do right now to tackle climate change, clean up our toxic air and help nature. It should start by banning fracking, phasing out single-use plastics and backing up its word in law.

Will the 25-year environment plan deliver soon enough?

Picture life in 2043 – that’s 25 years from now. Imagine our government has met its pledge to improve our environment within a generation. Imagine that, after years of thumb-twiddling, our leaders have made up for decades of ignoring the environment – or at best dabbling.

How things will have changed for children born in 2018 – who from their first day breathed toxic air. Their parents drank from single-use cups that ended up in a sea of plastic; they lived with the menace of flooding, drought and coastal erosion; and with the threat of global climate change.

Fast forward 25 years to 2043. Lives are richer in wildlife than ever. The natural beauty of town and country alike is enhanced, and enjoyed and cared for by everyone. And for good measure the UK leads the world in restoring nature and curbing climate change globally.

It’s all thanks to far-sighted politicians who didn’t just promise the Earth but delivered. Statues to those brilliant leaders stand in Trafalgar Square.

Back to reality. Today fracking threatens to lock us into a high-carbon future, plastics litter our streets and seas, and nature is in trouble. And unless the government starts matching its words with sustained action we all face a worse environment – not one that’s been restored.  

Previous governments have a poor record on the environment

This vision of life in 2043 isn’t entirely made up – it comes from the ambitious 25 Year Environment Plan launched in January 2018 by Prime Minister Theresa May. She said her government aims to be “the first to leave the environment in a better state than we found it and pass on to the next generation a natural environment protected and enhanced for the future.”

Long-term thinking is refreshing. Short-termism is the default setting for governments and politicians presiding over environmental decline. They’ve tended to show passing interest in a few environment concerns, then passed the buck to the next generation.

A little boy called Ben stands in front of 2 wind turbines at a Welsh community-owned wind farm
Credit: Friends of the Earth

The 25-year environment plan score card

Here’s what we don’t like

No legal underpinning: The government’s word is no guarantee. The plan must have legal grounding if it's to stay on track.

Too vague on climate change: The government should ban fracking and open-cast coal mining. It should unlock subsidies for new onshore wind power capacity. And it must stick to the UK’s carbon budgets so that we make our fair contribution to meeting the Paris climate change agreement. 

Too slow on plastics: The government says many plastics are avoidable. If so, why take so long to act? And why just “explore” extending the 5p charge for plastic bags, when small retailers already welcome the idea? This could happen today. Why the wait? The government should reduce and ultimately ban single-use plastics.

Bad air: A Clean Air Strategy will be consulted on this year  and this will “set out how we will continue to seek improvements to public health”. This is inadequate – we need action now to prevent the 40,000 early deaths each year from air pollution. The government should urgently publish a revised Air Quality Action Plan which will end illegal levels of air pollution by the end of 2019. This should include a nationwide network of Clean Air Zones and a scrappage scheme to help people replace the most polluting vehicles.

Toothless environment watchdog? Will the new environment watchdog be properly resourced and free to regulate? Natural England and the Environment Agency have been weakened by cuts and political pressure to pull their punches instead of protecting our environment.

New forests for old? The plan backs the creation of a new Northern Forest from Hull to Liverpool, which is welcome. Meanwhile, the government also supports the routing of HS2 north of Birmingham which threatens 35 irreplaceable ancient woodlands. This is a supreme irony. England needs both new forests and old woodlands.

Wishy-washy on flood risk: The government says it will see whether drainage schemes to protect households from flooding should be required in new developments. So far it’s resisted making Sustainable Urban Drainage Schemes (SuDS) standard – egged on by developers who say they would add to costs. The Environment Agency (EA)’s role in assessing flood risk from new development is only to be “considered”. The EA is routinely ignored by local councils. It has said that it lacks the resources to scrutinise all planning applications.

photo of flooding Bewdley, Bridgnorth, Shrewsbury, 2001
Credit: Paul Glendell

Here’s what we like

Laws and standards: A commitment to retain current EU green laws. This is good because EU standards will be central to the quality of our air, beaches, wildlife and food. Its goals will need new legal underpinning including to ensure trade deals do not undermine standards of foods, animal welfare and consumer protection. 

UK global leadership: A promise to lead internationally on tackling climate change and wildlife crime. The plans says it places “the utmost importance on our commitments to biodiversity and nature conservation under international agreements.” But even now the Clean Growth strategy will make the UK fall short of what's needed to honour the Paris climate agreement.

Water fountains: The plan says it will support water companies, high-street shops, cafes and transport hubs to offer new refill points for people to top up water bottles for free in every major city and town in England. A nice practical action that will help deal with plastic bottle waste – although obviously not enough on its own.

Young people’s environment: 2019 will be a Year of Environment Action “putting children and young people at its heart”. A Nature Friendly Schools scheme will run in the most disadvantaged areas from autumn 2018. And a Natural Environment for Health and Wellbeing project will involve teachers, health professionals and councils to promote contact with nature.

Seas and fish stocks: The plan promises a “fishing policy that ensures seas return to health and fish stocks are replenished”. The government says it will “extend the marine protected areas around our coasts so that these stretches of environmentally precious maritime heritage have the best possible protection.”

Nature recovery network: The document mentions a new network for nature “to connect our best wildlife sites to overcome their isolation and fragmentation”. Such a network could improve conditions for soil, water and air quality and help wildlife – from bees to beavers. Similarly, exploring the potential to link up National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty could help overcome fragmentation and make more space for nature, landscapes and natural features to function as they should.

What would good look like? 

Here are some ways to assess if the government’s plans are up to the task: 

  • Curbing climate change: the UK must deliver its fair share of cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Paris climate agreement's 1.5 degrees temperature goal, and be zero carbon by 2040. 

  • Restoring nature: the UK must lead international action starting by securing a strong global agreement on nature in 2020. 

  • Leading also means ending the UK’s harmful consumption of commodities such as soy for animal feed which are driving the loss of rainforests and other vital habitats. 

  • The government must back its words in law including current EU laws and standards – such as on air quality and nature protection – and ensure these are properly implemented and even strengthened post Brexit. 

  • The government must direct public money for farmers and landowners away from harmful actions that are driving declines in wildlife, habitats and soil and water quality and toward wildlife-friendly farming, flood prevention and care of natural ecosystems. 

  • A fresh approach to public health will transform people’s food access and choices, and end persistent failures to ensure people breathe clean air. 

  • Everyone will live within 5 minutes’ walk of quality natural spaces in town and country alike and every child will have daily contact with nature for play, recreation, healthy development and educational attainment.

  • All local councils will have the resources and expertise to make good decisions about their area including properly assessing planning applications. 

Staying the course: 25 years is a long time 

If Theresa May can deliver her grand plan she can outdo David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, John Major and Margaret Thatcher – prime ministers who presided over the past 25 years of environmental decline.

Imagine how much could have happened by now had they taken our environment seriously? We could be breathing clean air today instead of still having to force government to give us this as of right. We could be on the way to a zero-waste society not facing a rising tide of plastic. And the state of nature in the UK would not be so dire that over half of wild species are, shockingly, in long-term decline.

25 years ago, in 1993, England’s footballers failed to qualify for the World Cup. That year the IRA bombed Warrington and London’s Bishopsgate. And the oil tanker the MV Braer polluted seas around the Shetland Isles with 84,700 tonnes of crude oil.

Oil spills still happen. But this year England will play in the World Cup in Russia and Northern Ireland is mainly peaceful. So there can be progress in 25 years.

But we need action fast. It's not just our quality of life, but lives that are at stake. We need our politicians not just promising the Earth but delivering it – for a change.

Here’s to the next 25 years, starting right now.

For over 4 decades Friends of the Earth and our supporters have forced the environment into the heart of politics and the public debate. We’ve won real, significant change. Right now we’re calling for swift action to tackle climate change, clean up our air and help nature. You can help by calling for a ban on fracking.