Queen’s Speech Reiterates Support for Paris Agreement, But Leaves Most Climate Policy Up-for-Grabs

Queen's speech

My government will continue to support international action against climate change, including the implementation of the Paris agreement.”

So said the Queen during her speech today introducing the start of the parliamentary year and the list of bills the government hopes to pass over the next 12 months.

Along with a brief note on affordable energy and electric cars, this was the only mention of anything related to climate change or the environment in the brief speech.

Despite dangerous air pollution levels across the UK and crucial environmental laws that need to be translated into British legislation as we leave the EU, the environment was notably missing as a policy priority.

Commentators were quick to point this out. As Caroline Lucas tweeted: “One single mention of climate change, with no detail at all. Nothing at all on air pollution. Total environmental failure.”

Indeed, there was little clarity about what we can specifically expect with regards to the bills introduced today. Compared to David Cameron’s Queen speech in 2015, delivered just after the Conservatives had won a majority in a general election, it seems ambitions have fallen as everyone is simply trying to sort out how Brexit is going to happen.

Theresa May will now try to govern with a minority government and waning confidence from many voters and MPs within the party. Meanwhile, a desperate attempt to form a majority has meant the Tories have turned to the controversial Northern Ireland party, the DUP which has a history of science denial (both climate and evolution).

Given the lack of information in the Queen’s speech, then, what might all of this mean for the environment going forward? Here are three key areas to keep your eye on in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Fracking and Fossil Fuels

The Conservative Party received more donations linked to fossil fuels than any other party since Brexit, our analysis showed ahead of the election.

Providing affordable energy will remain a priority as mentioned in the Queen's speech. But beyond that it's pretty vague about what that means or how it will be delievered.

One area to watch will be the North Sea where the oil and gas industry continues to receive considerable subsidies under the Conservatives in the form of tax breaks.

Going forward, things are unlikely to change. As the Tory manifesto reiterates: “We will continue to support the [North Sea oil and gas] industry and build on the unprecedented support already provided to the oil and gas sector…There are very significant reserves still in the North Sea.”

Meanwhile, these “significant reserves” are harder and harder to find and extract. This in part is making operations more costly. Large companies such as Shell are pulling out of the North Sea leaving many workers without jobs.

Over time we’ll see how the government plans to square all of this this with both its pledge to reduce the country’s carbon emissions and promised support for all the highly skilled workers in the area. Part of the government’s solution, according to its manifesto, will be to build a “world-leading decommissioning industry”.

In addition, one area of “lower carbon” energy the government is looking to is shale gas. In fact, the Tories were the only major party to back fracking in their election manifesto.

Drilling down into their promises, May pledged to change the planning law for shale applications if they won the election. According to the manifesto this means “non-fracking drilling will be treated as permitted development.”

What is non-fracking drilling? It’s not specified but it’s likely to include exploratory drilling and conventional onshore extraction, which the has a long history in the UK.

Also, it’s worth recalling that under the 2015 Infrastructure Act, the government stated shale gas exploration and extraction must involve more than a total 10,000 cubic metres of fluid in order to be defined as hydraulic fracturing – anything under that amount of fluid is not technically fracking even if the same techniques are used.

As for what “permitted development” means, according to the government: “certain minor building works don’t need planning permission. This is because the effect of such developments on neighbours or the surrounding environment is likely to be small.”

This pledge will also see major shale planning decisions be made by the National Planning Regime which governs major infrastructure projects. Including fracking schemes under this would allow ministers – not local councils – to retain the final say on whether the shale project happens or not.

A second promised change to fracking rules will be seen with the creation of a new Shale Environmental Regulator. This will take over the fracking related work currently performed by the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). The goal here is to “provide clear governance and accountability, become a source of expertise, and allow decisions to be made fairly but swiftly.” It’s not known yet who will make up this new team.

Brexit

The mandate for a hard Brexit has become a lot weaker with the stunning election results. However, May’s government is barreling ahead and talks began earlier this week.

While tackling climate change was never mentioned during the Brexit campaign last year, the Queen’s speech maintains support for the Paris Agreement and the EU referendum does have many serious implications for the UK’s energy and environmental policy.

During the election Labour’s shadow trade minister Barry Gardiner accused the Conservatives of using Brexit as a “vehicle for deregulation” and putting the UK’s environment at risk as a consequence.

So what does the Tory manifesto say exactly about Brexit when it comes to energy and climate?

It reads: “After we have left the European Union, we will form our energy policy based not on the way energy is generated but on the ends we desire – reliable and affordable energy, seizing the industrial opportunity that new technology presents and meeting our global commitments on climate change…we will improve our environment as we leave the European Union and take control of our environmental legislation again… Protections given to consumers and the environment by EU law will continue to be available in UK law at the point at which we leave the EU.”

No one knows exactly yet how this will play out. This will largely depend on how EU law gets translated onto the UK statute book as part of the Great Repeal Bill – if it's word-for-word, or if there are changes along the way, opening the door for lots of lobbying.

The man now in charge of translating a significant portion of environmental laws during Brexit will be Michael Gove, who now heads up the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Just this week Gove pledged that changes to the UK’s wildlife laws increase, not reduce, environmental protections. Upon entering his role Gove also made clear his support for the Paris Agreement.

It’s worth remembering too that environment minister Therese Coffey – who remains a minister at Defra – in May promised EU environmental regulations would not be subject to a 1-in 2-out rule that seeks to cut out “red tape”.

Emissions and Air Pollution

There are also two issues the Conservatives have promised to act on and deliver new plans for.

The first is a new emissions reduction plan. Originally promised for the end of 2016 this deadline has come and gone with no clear indication of when exactly the government plans to reveal how it’s going to meet its legally binding carbon budgets.

According to Conservative MP James Heappy speaking in February: “The emissions reduction plan is now the clean growth plan and (the publication date of) April will be more like June.”

But once the election was announced then climate minister Nick Hurd told the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee the new clean growth plan was sitting in a “holding pattern” and that there is “still a bit more work to do” to get final cross-Government support and approval to release the plan. So it remains unclear as to when exactly this elusive plan will be released.

Greg Clark is staying on as head of BEIS. Joining him is Claire Perry who May made a BEIS minister on the same day she shuffled Hurd into the Home Office. They will be the ones responsible for ensuring a new plan is released. Both are well-versed in the science and risks of climate change. A clean growth plan will be an essential part of delivering the UK’s climate commitments under the Paris Agreement.

The second issue to watch here is the government’s plan to tackle air pollution. A nation-wide problem, the UK government was recently taken to court over its inability to address the country’s dangerous air pollution.

When the government finally did release a new plan, it placed a large portion of the responsibility to address this issue on local councils. While that could work in principle, however, a DeSmog UK investigation shows that local authorities have been failing to monitor air pollution due to a lack of resources.

It will be up to Gove and his team at Defra to take up this issue. But given that air pollution failed to be mentioned in the Queen’s speech it’s unclear whether or not more resources will be put into local councils to fulfil their legal duties.

Photo: BBC screengrab

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