UK government greenwash fades as environmental policy goes backwards

The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP

The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP

The green washing of Theresa May’s Conservative government appears to have reached its end following a week of environmentally regressive policy announcements and the collapse of UK renewable energy investment, writes JOSEPH DUTTON

Renewables investment fell by 56 percent in 2017.

The government released a statement yesterday (Thursday) setting out its plans to help speed up the planning and development of shale gas.

This followed a report from the Environment Audit Committee (EAC) on Wednesday which heavily criticised the government, arguing its energy policies have led to a steep fall in renewable energy investment.

And last week the government’s plans for a post-Brexit environment watchdog were criticised for being inadequate in ensuring it delivers on its ‘green Brexit’ promise.

Fracking ministers

A statement from Greg Clark, secretary of state for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS),  on Thursday outlined the government’s intention to change the planning and regulatory regime for fracking to ensure the sector can develop quicker.

Planning law in England could be revised so decisions on fracking would be taken by ministers, and not local authorities. Under the proposals shale gas sites in future could even be classed as ‘permitted development’, meaning they do not require planning permission.

Under the banner of transparency, the regulation of fracking would also transfer to a newly created body away from the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the Oil and Gas Authority as it is currently regulated.

Aside from issues of democracy and the ‘social licence’ to operate, the government changing planning law to improve development prospects of a fossil fuel is firmly at odds with tackling climate change and reducing carbon emissions.

Renewables investment

The statement on fracking from BEIS came only a day after the government was strongly rebuked by the EAC for the collapse in clean energy investment in the UK. According to the committee, investment in clean energy fell by 10 percent in 2016 and 56 percent in 2017. The EAC highlighted key policy decisions taken in 2015 which this government has made no attempt to redress, including:

  • a ban on new onshore wind farms
  • withdrawing subsidies from solar        
  • cancelling the Zero Carbon Homes policy due to come into force in 2016
  • cancelling the £1bn Carbon Capture & Storage competition
  • privatisation of the Green Investment Bank


Renewables investment fell by 56 percent in 2017.

The criticism of policy changes and resulting fall in renewables investment has, ironically, coincided with the UK sector reaching its strongest position yet. Just this month, figures showed that renewables produced more electricity than nuclear in the first quarter of this year, while the UK recorded its longest coal-free period of electricity generation in modern history. But further progress now appears uncertain because of the steep fall in clean energy investment.

Green Brexit shedding its leaves

The government had previously promised to deliver a green Brexit with higher environmental standards in the UK once we leave the EU. In January Defra published a 25-year environment plan setting out its ambition to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than that in which it was inherited.

Last week the government opened a consultation on an ‘Environmental Principles and Governance Bill’ to create a new statutory and independent watchdog to hold the government to account on environmental obligations.

However, the proposals received criticism for a number of reasons, including not giving the new watchdog to the power to take legal action against the government if it fails to meet its commitments, and it having a much narrower scope than set out in the Defra 25-year plan.  

Concerns had previously been raised that the new watchdog would not deliver the promised green Brexit, as there is a strong element of the Conservative party calling for deregulation after Brexit. In Whitehall Defra is regarded as a hard Brexit department because it is led by an ardent brexiteer in Michael Gove, and standards and regulations are central to the idea of ‘taking back control’.

Government disconnected

Recent events further highlight the gulf between government policy and public views on clean energy. Earlier this month data published by BEIS in its quarterly public attitudes tracker showed public support for renewables hit a record high of 85 percent, with just 3 percent of people opposed to it.

This is the highest level of support since the tracker started in July 2012. Support for fracking languished on 18 percent, with 35 percent of people opposed to it. But the regressive stance on clean energy and environmentalism seemingly held by this government goes back to the previous Conservative administration.

A logo never changes its spots

In 2006 the Conservative party changed its logo from the traditional torch to a blue and green tree. Journalist and then editor of the Conservative Home website Tim Montgomery told the BBC that “the green in it reinforces what David Cameron is trying to communicate in terms of a more environmentally-friendly party”. As this apparent change took root, Cameron said in 2010 that his coalition government would be the ‘greenest government ever’.

Despite this, through the coalition government years the Conservatives pushed for fracking and shale gas development – stopping only after the seismic events triggered by Cuadrilla’s drilling activities in Lancashire. And the flawed policy decisions highlighted by the EAC were undertaken in 2015, under the leadership of Cameron.

This government has been presented with an opportunity to deliver a tangible benefit to the UK environment from Brexit amidst the difficult political and economic climate. But with the greenwash appearing to fade, it seems unlikely the government will deliver environmental success and make good on the promise to raise environmental ambition in post-Brexit UK.

This undermines not only green Brexit, but the government’s goal of ensuring a ‘protected and enhanced environment’ in the UK is passed to the next generation.

This Author

Joseph Dutton is a policy adviser for the global climate change think-tank E3G. All views are his own. He tweets at @JDuttonUK.

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