Following her resignation as Prime Minister, Theresa May’s legacy will undoubtedly be dominated by her failure to achieve Brexit. The Brexit mess has overshadowed her ambition to empower “forgotten” parts of the UK and to solve key environmental and social issues.
While her resignation speech called for her successor to champion compromise with Brexit, she also highlighted the work her Government has done on social and environmental sustainability.
She said: “We are also protecting the environment, eliminating plastics waste, tackling climate change and improving air quality. This is what a decent, moderate and patriotic Conservative government, on the common ground of British politics, can achieve – even as we tackle the biggest peacetime challenge that any Government has faced.”
Here we explore what impact May has had on green policy during her tenure in Britain’s top job.
Carbon and climate
May vowed to halve both the energy use from new buildings and the energy costs from the existing building stock (both domestically and commercially) by 2030. She also implemented a £420 million construction sector deal to drive carbon policy progress.
She united parliament this year in declaring a ‘Climate Emergency’ in a symbolic stand against global warming. However, the UK remains on course to significantly breach its fourth and fifth carbon budgets, by 139 and 245 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) respectively.
May has also faced criticism for dismissing the action of student climate strikers and encouraging them to stop protesting in favour of studying.
One of May’s biggest changes to Britain’s energy and industry policy was the abolition of Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in June 2016. The move was designed to better align business and policy action on decarbonisation and climate challenges.
She also successfully had proposals to end the UK’s coal-fired electricity generation by 2025 written into law. Coal power stations have since recorded the lowest electricity output since 1994, with wind and solar generation levels surpassing all-time records.
However, May’s Government also brought in some highly criticised clean energy policies. Onshore wind was blocked from competing for new power contracts under the Contracts for Difference (CfD) auctions, while the solar sector is now facing potential VAT hikes following a string of subsidy closures.
May achieved Government support for the £18 billion Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset. While Britain’s industry groups commended the decision for providing secure, affordable low-carbon power as coal comes off the grid, environmentalists argue that the time and energy could have been better spent on renewables.
May brought in three big green policy strategies – the Clean Growth Strategy, Industrial Strategy and 25-Year Environment Plan. A broad Industrial Strategy was launched in November 2017 with a vision for clean technology and innovation to boost the UK’s long-term economic prospects.
The Government has pledged to invest £400 million in Electric Vehicle (EV) charging points and a further £100 million for extending the ‘plug-in’ car grant. There will also be a £31 billion cash injection into the National Productivity Fund to back investments in transport, housing and digital infrastructure.
In January 2018, May unveiled her 25-year Environment Plan, which pledges to eliminate 100 per cent of avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042. The plan, which faced lengthy delays because of Brexit, is ambitious but critics say it offers little in the way of tangible targets and action plans.
The Government has since been urged to create legally binding targets for environmental issues that can be scrutinised by a new independent oversight body.
A report from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) additionally recommended that the new watchdog should have the power to take the Government and other public bodies to court should standards be breached.
Another landmark strategy delayed by Brexit talks was the Clean Growth Strategy, which outlined how multi-billion-pound investments into low carbon innovations and household energy efficiency will enable the UK to meet its carbon budgets. However, research suggests that the strategy does not go far enough.
After the BBC’s Blue Planet 2 brought plastic pollution into public consciousness in 2016, the issue has become a top priority for policymakers and businesses. As well as her commitment eradicating all avoidable plastic waste in the UK, May launched a consultation into a national ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds. This resulted in restrictions on the sale and distribution of these items being written into law for April 2020.
May’s Government also brought in a ban on plastic microbeads and a charge on major retailers distributing single-use plastic carrier bags.
Defra recently published proposals for a comprehensive update to the UK’s Resources and Waste Strategy. These include plans for packaging producers to pay 100 per cent of the net costs of packaging disposal, up from the current 10 per cent, and for a national framework for domestic plastics recycling.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
A damning report from the UK Stateholders for Sustainable Development has revealed that the UK was only performing well on 24 per cent of the targets viewed as relevant to the delivery of the goals.
May’s Government last year launched the first voluntary review into how the country’s business community is contributing to the SDG agenda, and agreed to let the EAC scrutinise this process. The results of the review are due to be published this summer.