The government in the UK just doesn’t care

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Notwithstanding some impassioned rhetoric from David Cameron at COP21 on the need to take vigorous action to fight climate change, he’s presiding over some of the most shocking slash-and-burn tactics against the renewables industry, since Margaret Thatcher routed the coal mines.

So this month, instead of focusing on a single issue, I thought I’d give a summary of what’s been happening in environmental regulation in the UK - and what it says about that government’s approach to protecting its people’s environment.

Air Quality

On December 17, DEFRA published draft air quality plans to control nitrogen dioxide. This is an overview document, setting out how the UK will improve air quality and achieve the NO2 limits which it must, under the EU Air Quality Directive 2008. It also published 38 individual air quality plans, for different areas in the UK. Did they do this out of concern for their citizens’ health?

They did not. Instead, it’s in response to a decision I reported on earlier this year - the Supreme Court’s ruling of in April 2015, which ordered the government to prepare new air quality plans by December 31 2015. Yay! Score 1 for clean air! The UK government also says it intends to introduce legislation requiring five cities to implement clean air zones by 2020, and will consult on its proposals in 2016.

Renewable Energy

In a new blow to the (until recently thriving) UK renewables industry, which has been creating masses of new jobs whilst relying on tiny subsidies compared to those for the fossil fuel industry, the Department of Energy and Climate Change published its response to August’s consultation on a fundamental review of feed-in tariffs (FITs) for smaller-scale renewable electricity generation (the schemes that tend to be community-owned as opposed to feeding big business....). The government said it will slash FITs for new solar PV, hydro and wind projects, and withdraw FITs for extensions to existing projects from January 15 2016.

Fracking

On December 17 2015, the Department for Communities and Local Government responded to its August 2015 consultation on ‘permitted development rights’ for drilling boreholes for shale gas exploration in England. On the same day, amidst howls of protest from Middle England, the Oil and Gas Authority also announced its 14th round of onshore oil and gas licences and updated its ‘regulatory roadmap’. It offered licences for a staggering 159 blocks. Press response to this was explosive: on that day I was travelling back on the train from the UK, and happened to pick up Metro – the freesheet for Londoners. Two whole sheets of the newspaper were dedicated to the public’s outpourings of rage – the government has even broken its original promise not to allow shale fracking under National Parks and in areas where drinking water could be contaminated. This is a massive expansion in the number of shale gas exploratory licences granted (up from from 137 to 230), with some of the blocks located in wildlife and habitat protected areas.

The previous day, the UK’s Task Force on Shale Gas published its final report into the potential for fracking in the UK. It indicated that test drilling should start ‘as soon as possible’, to let developers map the size and profitableness of fracking the UK.

Financial Reporting

On December 15 2015, the Financial Reporting Council published a ‘letter of advice’ to the audit committee chairs of larger listed companies. This suggests ways they can improve their reporting in 2015 annual accounts. On environmental issues, the FRC said that whilst investors don’t expect disclosure of all possible risks, it was surprised at how few disclosed climate change risks – a strong hint that companies need to sharpen their pencils here.

GMOs

The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee issued a report on Genetically Modified Insects, calling on the government to launch a field trial of these beasties. Given how often plant GMOs ‘escape’ their trial sites and contaminate the local ecosystems, it’s seen by many as an accident waiting to happen. The report recommends that the government should:

- Invest in a GM insect field trial to test the science of GM insects.

- Initiate a programme of public engagement alongside the field trial, giving the public “the opportunity to understand the development of GM insect technologies and avoid the polarised debate that enveloped GM crop technologies” (ie, do some PR work)

- Consider alternative regulatory approaches in the light of this trial, because they think the EU rules for protecting people and ecosystems is too painful and damages companies’ profits)

- Support the commercialisation of UK-based GM insect research

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