Caroline Lucas: Despite her warm words on climate change and the environment, May can’t greenwash her legacy of inaction

Posted On: 
15th July 2019

May Days: May’s government has gone for headline grabbing policies but dodged the systemic change that is needed, writes Caroline Lucas

UK students take part in a strike for the climate crisis outside Parliament Square
Credit: 
PA Images

Theresa May arrived at No 10 to the smoking embers of environmental legislation left by her predecessor David Cameron. After he promised the “greenest government ever”, the bonfire of policy that followed rivalled any Guy Fawkes celebrations, with zero carbon homes scrapped, new onshore wind blocked and support for solar slashed to name but a few. Instead of reversing these hugely damaging policies Theresa May will leave No 10 with most of them still intact.

On climate and energy, May will take credit for the UK’s falling emissions, the majority of which come from ditching coal. In reality the policy to end unabated coal generation preceded her, and the 2025 target was too late. May could have used her time as PM to signal the end of the age of fossil fuels but failed – offering yet more support to a new fossil fuel industry in the form of fracking. This included proposals to bring exploration under the permitted development regime, massively reducing communities’ right to a say over new developments.

Compare this to the planning rules for onshore wind and you can see on which side this government stands. Theresa May has decided to hamper renewables instead of helping them. Blocking onshore wind – now the cheapest form of electricity generation – from competing in the Contracts for Difference auctions and continuing restrictions on solar subsidies leaves these industries unable to reach their full potential.

The Committee on Climate Change’s 2019 progress report published last week is stark. Of the 25 climate mitigation actions which were meant to be taken over the past 12 months, only one was fully implemented. This has been a government that has been happy to offer warm words, distant targets and strategies lacking detail. But it has resolutely failed in the one thing we require from leaders in an emergency: action.    

Away from climate change, May’s government has gone for headline grabbing policies but dodged the systemic change that is needed. Look at plastics: straws, stirrers and cotton buds were easy targets, but the commitment in the 25 Year Environment Plan to eradicate “avoidable” plastic waste by 2042 is far too little, too late.

May’s legacy will always be her handling of Brexit. And the environment hasn’t escaped the turmoil and time-wasting of the past three years. The full impacts of Brexit on the environment are still uncertain, but current provisions are woefully inadequate. The proposed governance body for environmental law is more lapdog than watchdog – its remit is too narrow, and it lacks teeth. The strength of the EU’s legal principles are to be watered down, and the US already has its sights on some of our regulations in future trade deals.   

Ultimately, prime ministers are judged on their actions, not words. Theresa May’s actions have shown a prime minister who didn’t grasp the urgency or scale of transformation needed. As she leaves No 10 the gulf between words and actions is yawning still wider. The Committee on Climate Change said that “actions to date have fallen short of what is needed for the previous targets and well short of those required for the net zero target”. Despite claiming net zero as her green legacy, she can’t greenwash her inaction so easily.

Caroline Lucas is Green MP for Brighton Pavilion