Posts Tagged ‘UK news’

An eco-friendly cuppa? Now teabags are set to go plastic-free

February 4th, 2018

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “An eco-friendly cuppa? Now teabags are set to go plastic-free” was written by Rebecca Smithers, for The Observer on Sunday 28th January 2018 00.04 UTC

The war on plastic waste is extending to the UK’s favourite beverage, with a major retailer in the final stages of developing a fully biodegradable paper teabag that does not contain plastic.

The Co-op is to make its own-brand Fairtrade 99 teabags free of polypropylene, a sealant used industry wide to enable teabags to hold their shape, and the guilt-free brew is due to go on sale by the end of the year.

The scale of the problem is huge. According to the trade body the UK Tea and Infusions Association, teabags account for a whopping 96% of the 165 million cups of tea drunk every day in the UK. Anti-plastic campaigners have been appealing to consumers to use loose tea or “greener” options such as Japanese-style “pyramids” made of 100% compostable corn starch, but these are more expensive than mainstream mass-produced teabags.

The Co-op, which sells 4.6m boxes of tea a year (367m teabags) has joined forces with its tea supplier, Typhoo, and Ahlstrom-Munksjö – specialists in sustainable fibre solutions – to develop a method of heat-sealing bags to eliminate the more widely used plastic seal.

The biodegradable bag will undergo rigorous testing next month and could be on shelves later this year. It is intended to be rolled out across the Co-op’s entire own-label standard tea range and will be fully compostable in food waste collections.

“Many tea drinkers are blissfully unaware that the teabag from their daily cuppa is sealed using plastic,” said Jo Whitfield, chief executive of Co-op Food. “Even though it’s a relatively small amount, when you consider the 6bn cups of tea that are brewed up every year in the UK, we are looking at around 150 tonnes of polypropylene – that’s an enormous amount of accumulated plastic waste that is either contaminating food waste compost collections or simply going to landfill.”

But the UK Tea and Infusions Association warned of higher prices for consumers. A spokesman said: “The UK tea industry has been experimenting with non-plastic sealing methods, but those methods are costly. The raw material cost and upgrades to machinery would increase the cost of a bag by about eight times if we were to move to a non-plastic sealing procedure now. We know that a significant price rise would have a severely negative effect on sales and seriously reduce the income of farmers from some of the poorest tea-growing regions of the world.”

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Pollutionwatch: wood burning worsening UK air quality

February 4th, 2018

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Pollutionwatch: wood burning worsening UK air quality” was written by Gary Fuller, for The Guardian on Thursday 1st February 2018 21.30 UTC

A new study shows how home wood burning is worsening air quality in UK towns and cities. Wood burning is adding between 24% and 31% to the particle pollution emitted in Birmingham and London. Many people think that this is a harmless form of heating, but it is often hard to see the impact of a pollutant until it is taken away.

That’s exactly what researchers did in three studies. Between 2005 and 2007, 1,110 old wood stoves were replaced in the small town of Libby, Montana. Wintertime particle pollution reduced by 28% and children had less wheeze, respiratory infections and sore throats. After banning wood burning on 100 of the most polluted days in California’s San Joaquin Valley in 2012, between 7% and 11% fewer old people were admitted to hospital with different types of heart problems. Finally, particle pollution dropped by 40% in Launceston, Tasmania when many wood-burning homes were converted to electric heating. Death rates in the over-65s fell by about 10%, an effect most clearly seen in men. In contrast, there were no matching health changes in nearby Hobart, which was outside the conversion scheme.

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Weatherwatch: can we keep the lights on when the wind fails to blow?

January 10th, 2018

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Weatherwatch: can we keep the lights on when the wind fails to blow?” was written by Kate Ravilious, for The Guardian on Tuesday 9th January 2018 21.30 UTC

Last year was one of the greenest for power in the UK. Nearly one-third of all electricity came from renewable sources, and wind and solar provided more power than coal on 315 days of the year. Rapid growth in both solar and wind (the UK now has more offshore wind power capacity than any other country in the world) has enabled the UK to achieve these impressive statistics, but will the rise in renewables also make UK power more vulnerable to the whims of British weather?

Researchers working on the European Climatic Energy Mixes project have been investigating future risk by assessing how the UK would fare with a repeat of the unusually cold winter of 2009-10. From mid-December 2009 a southward-displaced jet stream allowed cold air to pour in from eastern Europe, bringing widespread snow and plunging temperatures. The mean UK temperature for the entire winter was just 1.5C, the lowest since 1978-79 when it was 1.2C . As a result power demand surged, with electricity consumption between 10 and 20% above average on a number of occasions.

Back in 2010 renewables provided less than 10% of UK electricity. But similar weather now might create a strain. “The low wind conditions in a repeat of winter 2009-10 would lead to a substantial reduction in wind power production over the season, which could lead to increased risks to electricity supply availability when combined with an increased demand due to low temperatures,” writes meteorologist Emma Suckling from the University of Reading. Winters like this might be getting rarer, but we still need a contingency plan when the wind fails to blow.

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Tackle UK’s plastic bottle problem with money-back scheme, ministers told

July 5th, 2017

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Tackle UK’s plastic bottle problem with money-back scheme, ministers told” was written by Matthew Taylor and Sandra Laville, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 4th July 2017 05.00 UTC

The UK government is under growing pressure to introduce a money-back return scheme for plastic bottles, in order to tackle huge volumes of waste in a country where 400 bottles are sold every second.

Opposition parties have called on ministers to introduce a deposit return scheme that experts say would drastically reduce the number of plastic bottles littering streets and seas around the UK. Similar schemes have been successfully introduced in at least a dozen countries.

The idea has the backing of global drinks company Coca-Cola and comes amid warnings that the worldwide plastics binge poses as serious a threat as climate change.

Sue Hayman, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, urged the government to take swift action. “A deposit return scheme would have widespread public support and would go a long way to ensuring that we recycle as much of our waste as possible,” she said.

Kate Parminter, environment spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said momentum was growing behind calls for a deposit return scheme. “Earlier this year, Coca-Cola said to the Scottish parliament they would back a well-designed deposit return scheme,” she said. “Now that industry are backing this scheme, it is high time the UK government began to throw their weight behind it.”

Last week, new figures obtained by the Guardian established that a million plastic bottles are bought around the world every minute and the number will jump another 20% by 2021.

Chart

According to an unpublished parliamentary report, more than 4m plastic bottles a week could be prevented from littering streets and marine environments in Britain if authorities adopted the kind of deposit return schemes that operate in countries like Germany and Australia.

The Conservative party’s manifesto did not mention such a scheme in the run-up to last month’s general election, but a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the idea was being considered as part of a wider litter strategy launched in April.

“We have made great progress in boosting recycling rates for plastic bottles, with their collection for recycling rising from less than 13,000 tonnes in 2000 to over 330,000 tonnes in 2015,” the spokesman said. “We are considering further the practical ways in which we can deal with the worst kinds of litter, including plastic bottles.”

However, Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion and co-leader of the Green party, said ministers must do more.

“The government is under growing pressure to take action on the plastic bottle crisis,” she said. “With such a slender majority in the House of Commons, and with the public swinging behind the campaign against plastic waste, there is a real chance that ministers will consider introducing a bottle deposit scheme.

“For a government desperate to salvage its reputation, taking such a simple step forward isn’t just the right thing to do – it serves their self-interest too.”

In Scotland, support is growing for a deposit return scheme. Last week, the Scottish National party launched a detailed study into how such a scheme for bottles and cans would work.

Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish environment secretary, said: “Clearly there are a number of issues for the Scottish government to consider when it comes to deposit return schemes, which can only be addressed by carrying out work to understand the design of a potential system.”

Recycling rates for plastic bottles in Britain stand at 59%, compared with more than 90% in countries that operate deposit return schemes, such as Germany, Norway and Sweden.

Coca-Cola in Britain and Europe has made a U-turn on deposit schemes and now supports their adoption in the UK, after pressure from environment and anti-waste campaigners. “We believe a new approach is needed,” the company said in a report to the environmental audit committee before its inquiry into plastic bottles was dropped after the dissolution of parliament.

“From our experiences in other countries, we believe a well-designed, industry-run drinks container deposit return scheme could help increase recycling and reduce littering,” Coca-Cola added.

Between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic end up in the world’s oceans each year, to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

Campaigners say plastic is polluting every natural system and an increasing number of organisms on the planet, with some of it already finding its way into the human food chain.

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Government support needed to unlock billions in green business, says industry

June 6th, 2017

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Government support needed to unlock billions in green business, says industry” was written by Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent, for theguardian.com on Sunday 4th June 2017 15.59 UTC

The UK could be a green business powerhouse in the next three decades, but only if given proper support by government, a group representing more than 30 low-carbon companies has said.

The low-carbon economy in the UK employs at least 432,000 people, with a turnover of more than £77bn in 2015. This is larger than industries such as car-making and steelmaking, which are frequently given the spotlight when politicians discuss industry and jobs.

Growth in green business is also expected to outstrip other sectors of the economy, as international opportunities open up for low-carbon goods and services. Investments by major developing countries alone are projected to be tn by the end of the next decade, with green business’s supporters arguing that the UK is well placed to take a share of the burgeoning market.

In a letter to the Guardian, a group representing more than 30 of the UK’s green and low-carbon companies forecast that the low-carbon economy would rocket from 2% of the UK’s GDP today to 13% in the next three decades, boosting both manufacturing and services, but only with government support.
The business leaders urged politicians across the spectrum to respond, as the policies of the next government will play a major role in determining how the sector develops and whether job opportunities are realised. They wrote: “Stable policies to grow the UK’s low-carbon market will be essential to turn this potential into reality and ensure our economy remains competitive on the global stage.” Green businesses have been disappointed by the apparent lack of interest in the sector during the general election campaign, and by the absence of strong public commitments in the manifestos. The signatories to the letter concluded: “We call on the new government to put in place ambitious and long-term policies to tackle climate change and improve the state of the environment at the heart of its industrial strategy and vision for the UK.” The letter was coordinated by the Aldersgate Group and also signed by 11 companies including Kingfisher, Aviva Investors, Anglian Water, Siemens, and Scottish and Southern Energy. Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, said the decision by US president Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change would not make a major dent in the prospects for growth.
He noted that the shift to a more efficient and lower carbon economy is well under way across the globe, with the cost of clean technologies, such as renewable energy and electric vehicles, falling rapidly, and investment growing strongly. “Following the commitments made by six world leaders at the recent G7 summit, and the news of greater cooperation between China and the EU on climate change, major global players like the UK must continue to build competitive, low-carbon economies and honour their commitments under the Paris agreement.”
Environmental businesses in the UK have been hit in recent years by swings in government policy that have led to job losses and uncertainty among potential investors. These swings include the scrapping of subsidies and harder planning requirements for onshore wind farms; the slashing of support for solar panels and restrictions on solar farms; the abandonment of the “green deal”, which was intended to boost home insulation; the removal of the promised £1bn funding for carbon capture and storage facilities; and the scrapping of the target to make new homes zero-carbon.
Last week, Labour accused the Conservative government of failing to come up with plans on how to achieve the statutory targets on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, set out under the Climate Change Act. Green groups fear that a new Conservative government under Theresa May could scrap the Climate Change Act, leaving the UK without firm targets on cutting greenhouse gases. However, the government has pointed to increased investment for electric vehicles, support for new nuclear power stations, and a boost to offshore wind as evidence of its commitment to low-carbon infrastructure.

Since May 2010, the UK has installed more than 11GW of wind power, generating enough electricity for more than 7.8m homes.

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The Guardian view on COP 21 climate talks: saving the planet in a fracturing world

December 14th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “The Guardian view on COP 21 climate talks: saving the planet in a fracturing world” was written by Editorial, for The Guardian on Sunday 13th December 2015 20.16 UTC

In the late 20th century, those who stood against globalisation were charged with swimming against an unstoppable tide, caricatured as “Stop the world, I wanna get off!” But in the 21st century, history is running with the anti-globalisers. World trade talks have gone nowhere, immigration controls have shot up the agenda, and two post-national EU projects – the euro and Schengen – are under strain. Figures as diverse as Donald Trump, Nicola Sturgeon and Marine Le Pen – who failed to convert a remarkable first-round victory in French regional elections into any outright wins – are all peddling one form of nationalism or another. Rumours of the death of the nation state, then, have proved exaggerated: globalisation is spinning into reverse.

Looking back on the future as it appeared in the 1990s – as a technocratic, transnational order – a democratic push-back was surely inevitable, in some senses even desirable. But when problems from the overuse of antibiotics to terrorism refuse to respect national borders, the retreat from the dream of global governance has some frightening consequences, especially in connection with climate change, the archetypal global problem. Saving the planet in a fracturing world is a daunting challenge indeed.

The Paris COP 21 talks surpassed expectations in rising to it, demonstrating just how much can be achieved by determined diplomacy, even while working within the unbending red lines of jealously sovereign states. A formal treaty was precluded because it would hand a veto to the intransigent legislators of Capitol Hill, while also offending the sensibilities of Delhi and Beijing. Fortunately, it proved possible to work within the fudged alternative framework of a “legally binding instrument”. Everyone offered up voluntary emission targets, and agreed, too, to a five-yearly review of these. While the targets on the table are not yet adequate to avoid the disaster of more than 2C of warming, the surprise inclusion of an aspiration to cap temperature rises at 1.5C signals a shared understanding that the targets will have to be tightened at each successive review. The destructive standoff between developing and developed countries that doomed Copenhagen six years ago has been transcended: the big developing economies, which now produce the bulk of emissions, are no longer pretending that they can delay doing anything until the rich world is perfectly green; at the same time the rich world is effectively accepting that it will have to help shoulder the “loss and damage” costs inflicted by the long legacy of western pollution.

This is, on the face of it, a rare and heartening case of disparate peoples being led to a common conclusion by evidence and reason, but serendipity played its part too. It happens, for example, that in 2015 there is a progressive US president who never has another election to win. It happens, too, that China is the midst of replacing filthy old power stations, which is already curbing its emissions growth, making it less painful than before for Beijing to engage. Indeed, the latest global CO2 data registers a striking levelling off, raising the tantalising possibility that technological progress could be entering a phase where the cast-iron link between emissions and growth begins to rust. If that pattern were borne out in future years, future climate negotiations could get smoother on every front. Then there is the great oil price crash, which facilitates a more fruitful discussion on fossil fuels, by making it much more imaginable to keep it in the ground.

One anxiety is whether this fortuitous alignment of political and economic stars will remain, as nations move from making promises, towards real action. Paris cannot guarantees success, but it does encourage hope – and particularly if Ms Le Pen’s chauvinist form of nationalism can be seen off. The Front National dabbled in greenwash last year, but its insistence on an ecology defined by “patriotism and the national interest”, and its instinctive suspicion of a multilateral UN approach is precisely the attitude which could thwart the translation of impressive COP 21 words into deeds.

Paris has given the world new hope in the possibilities of pragmatic diplomacy, at a time when France’s own politics illustrate the difficulties of assuming solidarity extends beyond national borders. If the answer to climate change is going to have to be found in continuous haggling between 200 nations, then success is also going to depend on winning the argument against narrow nationalism in every corner of the world.

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Shale gas should be at centre of next government’s energy policy – Tim Yeo

March 13th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Shale gas should be at centre of next government’s energy policy – Tim Yeo” was written by Fiona Harvey, for theguardian.com on Thursday 12th March 2015 06.01 UTC

Shale gas exploration can be environmentally sound, and should be the centrepiece of the next government’s energy policy, the Conservative’s most senior green-leaning MP has urged.

Tim Yeo, the Tory former minister, and chairman of parliament’s energy and climate committee, said the time had come to make the “green” case in favour of fracking, and that the incoming government after the general election must seize on the technology for the good of the UK’s environment and economy.

“There is an opportunity now, and it might not exist in a few years [when other European countries have developed fracking],” he told the Guardian. “People who think fracking is an environmental problem are mistaken.”

He said that the regulations governing fracking in this country were sound, and that related problems such as tremors were very small, and there would be no danger to the water supply here, as there has been in some places in the US. “Once people see that horizontal drilling is not causing earthquakes or poisoning the water they will be satisfied,” he said.

While warning that shale gas would not be the “transformational” industry it has been in the US, where the widespread exploitation of fracking technology has sent gas and oil prices tumbling, Yeo said it would be cheaper for the UK and have less impact on the climate than importing gas.

Fracking involves blasting water, sand and chemicals at dense rock to release tiny bubbles of gas trapped within, but the technology has been slow to be adopted in the UK after a series of hitches in the first targeted sites.

At the general election, Yeo will leave parliament after 32 years, having been de-selected by his constituency party, apparently for spending more time on national than local issues. A former environment minister and shadow environment secretary, he is one of the longest-standing and most influential champions of green issues among the ranks of Tory MPs, and chairs the influential parliamentary cross-party select committee on energy and climate change.

He makes his last major speech on energy and the environment on Thursday, at a conference that will highlight some of the committee’s progress on making policy recommendations in the current parliament.

He has chosen to make the green case for shale gas as his parting shot, because he believes the coalition has been too timid in persuading the public of the value of shale. Yeo has no current financial interest in shale and does not intend to take up any such interests on leaving parliament.

He will also use Thursday’s speech to argue strongly in favour of onshore wind turbines, which he will say are a cheap and reliable form of low-carbon energy. David Cameron has vowed to end subsidies for onshore wind, despite polls showing most people are in favour of the turbines.

Yeo said that reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions would still leave the country reliant on gas for years to come, and that fulfilling heating and power needs using domestic sources of gas would be both lower in emissions and cheaper than importing liquefied natural gas from overseas.

“I yield to no one in my desire to [tackle climate change] but the fact is we will not get by without consuming a lot of gas between now and the 2030s, so better to have a domestic source than to import it,” he said. “I do not think that a single extra cubic metre of gas will be consumed in the UK because of a domestic fracking industry.”

He said many green groups were opposing fracking because of a “visceral reaction to anything involving fossil fuels”, but he said the UK could meet its commitments on carbon reduction while producing gas from shale.

He will tell the conference: “The next government must stand up to the fuzzy-headed ideological fringes that oppose fracking. The greens opposed to fracking do not have evidence on their side.”

He will add: “Too many of us take the ready availability of energy, and the prosperity it makes possible, for granted. We expect electricity and gas to be constantly available – but we won’t accept the energy infrastructure on which that availability depends.”

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Lib Dems pledge to drop plastic bag charge exemptions

March 6th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Lib Dems pledge to drop plastic bag charge exemptions” was written by Karl Mathiesen, for theguardian.com on Friday 6th March 2015 05.00 UTC

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg has said that exemptions to an upcoming charge on plastic bags are overly complicated and should be scrapped to save billions of bags being given out each year.

The government has legislated for a 5p charge on single use plastic bags to come into force in England in October 2015. As it stands, the law will exempt businesses with less than 250 employees as well as paper and biodegradable bags.

The Lib Dems on Friday proposed changes to the upcoming plastic bag charge that they claim will remove an extra 3.5bn plastic bags and 328m papers bags from circulation each year, and save small businesses £300m annually. Plastic bag use has risen for four years running, with 8.3bn given out in 2013.

Clegg said: “The facts are simple; single use bags blight our towns and countryside, they trap and suffocate wildlife, and plastic bags take hundreds of years to degrade.

“The countdown to charging has begun, and by the time it arrives this autumn, reusable bags should increasingly be commonplace. As we get used to it, the hundreds of millions raised from the charge will go to charities.

“But we need to do much more. We need to go further and faster.”

The policy follows a recommendation from the environmental audit committee of MPs in June that all exemptions should be dropped.

An exemption-free charge would bring England into line with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Wales the first year of the 5p charge saw the use of plastic bags drop by 96%. An Environment Agency report found that on some measures, particularly carbon emissions, paper bags were worse for the environment than plastic.

The business community was supportive of the move.

Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC) said: “The BRC has always maintained that the charge should apply to all retailers and all bags. It makes sense to improve on the current proposal now rather than waiting until the next parliament. The proposal as it stands is confusing and will not send a clear message to shoppers.”

John Allan, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said: “The FSB supports the introduction of charges for plastic bags. Many small retailers believe this measure could be good for business, good for the environment and good for their customers and community. However, we agree with the widely held industry view that imposing complex reporting requirements on smaller businesses is overly-burdensome and unnecessary.”

But the chairman of the Oxo-biodegradable Plastics Association Michael Stephen criticised the removal of the exemption on biodegradable plastic bags.

“There will still be an awful lot of bags in circulation, even with the 5p charge. Some of them will get into the environment,” said Stephen. He said the exemption would ensure that more of these bags were biodegradable.

Clegg’s announcement comes after a week in which the Lib Dems attempted to position themselves ahead of the Conservatives and Labour on the green agenda. Across five days they announced an environmental policy agenda which included tougher penalties for flytipping and a prescription-for-boilers scheme.

Clegg said he was proud of the Lib Dem’s part in David Cameron’s “greenest government ever”.

“At the beginning of this coalition government we made ambitious promises. Four years on I’m proud to say that we’ve made real changes. From planting new trees, to boosting green travel options in their cities, the powerful steps we’ve taken will conserve our environment now and for years to come.”

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Lib Dems promise to triple flytipping fines to £9m

March 4th, 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Lib Dems promise to triple flytipping fines to £9m” was written by Karl Mathiesen, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 4th March 2015 05.01 UTC

Fines for companies caught flytipping on an industrial scale should triple to £9m, the Liberal Democrats have said.

The increased penalities would target businesses that avoid paying landfill tax by dumping rubbish in hedgerows, parks and roadsides, and follows a 20% increase in such incidents in 2013-14.

The measure is part of a suite of environment announcements the Lib Dems have made this week in an attempt to capitalise on what they see as a distinct point of difference against the Tories and Labour.

The current maximum fine of £3m for deliberate dumping that causes serious environmental damage was introduced by the government in early 2014.

But Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, announcing the policy on Wednesday, said the increased fines were still not enough of a deterrent.

The deputy prime minister said the policy was based on a Sentencing Council report that found fines handed to offenders had been “too low and did not reflect the seriousness of the offence committed”.

In 2013 a waste business operator was caught systematically dumping hundreds of tonnes of asbestos without a permit and was fined less than £80,000 – despite an annual turnover of £400,000.

If they were part of the next government, the Lib Dems would ask the Sentencing Council to triple the penalties for the deliberate dumping of waste. The minimum fine will rise to £165,000.

“Commercial flytipping and illegal dumping of waste not only harms British wildlife and the environment, but also means the taxpayer loses out,” said Clegg.

Flytipping in England rose for the first time in several years to 852,000 separate incidents in 2013-14. During that year, clear ups and enforcement was estimated to cost the UK taxpayer £186m.

A spokesperson for Keep Britain Tidy said the increase was a good idea but that it should be expanded to target domestic dumpers as well.

“We welcome the Liberal Democrats’ promise to take action on industrial flytipping, which is a major scourge. However, more than three-quarters of all flytipping incidents are domestic. Alongside any stronger regime for penalties, we would urge measures to tackle domestic and small scale flytipping, for example, by unregistered ‘cowboy’ builders and householders who evade their responsibilities to dispose of waste properly.”

Councillor Peter Box, the Local Government Association’s environment spokesman said: “Waste crime costs taxpayers tens of millions of pounds every year and is a burden on businesses, and residents. Councils are remarkably effective in addressing flytipping but the current system works against them. Giving councils tougher powers will enable them to tackle this criminal activity head on. Not only does flytipping create an eyesore for residents, it is also a serious public health risk, creating pollution and attracting rats and other vermin.”

The party’s zero-waste policy announced on Wednesday will also include an action plan to cut landfill by reusing and recycling the vast majority of materials.

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Would a Labour or Tory government be better for the environment?

March 3rd, 2015

 


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Would a Labour or Tory government be better for the environment?” was written by Karl Mathiesen, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 3rd March 2015 07.00 UTC

After five years of a government that aspired to being the greenest ever, what can we expect from the next parliament?

Here’s how the two big parties stand on some of the key upcoming environmental issues, from crunch UN climate negotiations and how and whether the UK should frack, to what to do about the country’s energy inefficient homes and whether the government should keep killing badgers.

Climate change

David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have signed a cross-party pledge on climate action, but the issue is still approached differently by the parties.

Labour leader Miliband has been forthright in placing climate change on the party’s agenda. In an op-ed in the Observer last week, he said climate change was a key economic issue for the UK and attacked Tory MPs who he said “flirt with climate change denial”.

Miliband’s shadow energy and climate change minister Jonathan Reynolds told an audience in London last week: “I look at the Conservative party front bench and I do not see anyone coming through who takes this agenda seriously, who wants to develop ideas on it … To me, the Conservative party, having had that phase where it looked like it was going to embrace this agenda, has fundamentally moved away from it and that is a great shame indeed.”

But Greg Barker, Cameron’s climate envoy who was also on the panel, disagreed: “There are lots of green Tories.”

When pressed for names Barker was able to cite just one example – Matt Hancock a minister for business, enterprise and energy – before saying:

“The most important green Tory is David Cameron and he has consistently been my greatest ally in government.”

But Cameron’s rhetoric on climate change has been undermined by his elevation of prominent climate sceptics to influential positions within the government’s environmental departments. The nadir was the much-lambasted and summarily-ended tenure of Owen Paterson as environment secretary, who has called climate science “consistently and widely exaggerated”. Michael Fallon who was a minister for climate change has also questioned climate science. These appointments represent an undercurrent of scepticism in the Conservative party. Last year a poll found just 30% of Tory MPs accepted it was “now an established scientific fact that climate change is largely man-made”.

The election will also decide who represents the UK at the defining climate conference in Paris this December. Labour has employed former deputy PM John Prescott, who led the UK’s delegation on the Kyoto protocol, and it can be expected that he would take a lead role in any negotiations. Liberal Democrat secretary of energy and climate change Ed Davey, who has been the UK’s lead in climate talks, will need a hung parliament and a new coalition deal to see the job through to Paris. Should the Tories win government outright, Barker, may retain an active role despite his imminent retirement from politics.

Carbon budgets

More contentious than the need for action, will be the question of how Britain achieves decarbonisation. In order to chart a way to its goal of 80% emissions reductions from 1990 levels by 2050, the UK has defined how much carbon it can burn in five yearly periods from 2008 until 2028. These are known as the carbon budgets.

In December 2015, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) will advise on Britain’s emissions reductions between 2028 and 2032 – the fifth carbon budget. Under the law, the sitting government must accept this advice and implement policies to achieve the reductions.

All parties agree unabated coal power must be eradicated and have committed to phasing it out – although any new parliament will not have to do much to make this happen as anti-pollution laws and carbon pricing will see all stations closed by 2027.

Chairman of the CCC John Gummer says, with coal heading for oblivion by the time its term begins, the fifth carbon budget will be the toughest to legislate. “Whoever is in power, there will be tough discussion about how we do that because the fifth carbon budget is going to be very difficult indeed in the sense that we’ll have picked off a lot of the low hanging fruit.”

Clean energy: onshore wind and nuclear

Labour and the Conservatives largely agree that Britain’s low-carbon future involves a broad suite of energy sources, including renewable technologies, nuclear and potentially domestic shale gas. But how much of each and their enthusiasm for certain technologies varies significantly.

“No doubt there is greater appetite for the nuclear component and a lesser appetite for onshore wind among Conservatives and a smaller appetite for the nuclear component in the Labour party,” says Gummer.

The Tories are openly hostile to onshore wind and various MPs have fanned the flames of public nimbyism by calling it a “blight” on landscapes and consistently rejecting planning applications. If it wins in May, the party has committed to cutting subsidies to the sector – Britain’s largest source of renewable energy – a move renewables groups say would “kill the industry dead”. This is despite onshore wind’s increasing affordability, reflected in the prices offered in Thursday’s government auction for new project contracts.

Jim Watson, research director of the UK Energy Research Centre, says the Tories’ opposition to certain forms of renewables runs counter to the interests of taxpayers. “If we want to reduce the costs of meeting our climate targets we ought to be enabling the lower cost technologies to come through and be built to save people money. It seems odd to me that a politician of whatever party would want to stand in the way of a technology that lowers the cost of meeting our climate targets for consumers.”

Financial support for the £25bn nuclear behemoth at Hinkley Point C, which was born of a pro-nuclear policy under the last Labour government, was announced by the current administration in 2013. This is a key plank of the Conservative’s decarbonisation plan and the defining infrastructure announcement of Davey’s term as energy and climate change secretary. But it looks likely to be delayed by shareholder setbacks and legal challenges to its generous subsidy regime.

Labour has offered its support for the Hinkley project.

“It will be interesting how much [Labour] pursue a pro-renewables versus a pro-all-of-the-above strategy,” says Green Alliance’s head of politics Alastair Harper.

Miliband has expressed tentative support for onshore wind. But Harper says the issue could be politically divisive.

“Are they going to go all out and say onshore wind has a real future in the UK if you vote for us? They haven’t quite done that yet and it’d be an interesting binary moment for them to go for.”

By the time the fifth carbon budget is announced in December, says Gummer, whichever party (or parties) is in government may have had the argument settled for them. “The price of renewables is falling much more sharply than even the most optimistic would have said and the situation of nuclear is of course still not certain with the delay on the next stage of Hinkley [Point C nuclear power station]”.

Fracking

The issue of shale gas exploration, or fracking, will be another key decision during the planning of the fifth carbon budget, says Watson.

“How much gas we can burn in the context of our targets and what is the role of shale gas within that will certainly come up, for whatever government is in power,” he says.

Both the Conservatives and Labour have expressed enthusiasm for fracking and claim credit for creating a safe, attractive legal platform for the industry – although there is a distinct difference in their approach. The Tories have aggressively pursued an agenda that removes regulatory hurdles. Some of which Labour has opposed, including fracking beneath national parks and beside aquifers.

“You’re really talking about difference of emphasis,” says Watson. “But there really isn’t a clear difference of one party is really for it and one party is really against it. I just detect a more cautious approach from Labour. There isn’t the same sort of rhetoric that there is from some government ministers.”

Watson says some less-straightforward electoral outcomes could influence the politics of fracking during the next term. Scotland has implemented a moratorium on fracking. Watson raises the possibility that a Labour-Scottish National party coalition (a possibility being hawked by the Tories) may have a more adversarial attitude towards shale gas.

The Welsh government is investigating its legal options to implement such a ban. The national Labour party has committed to devolving powers to Wales to allow them to ban fracking.

Animal welfare

Badgers and foxes are perhaps the only environmental issues where daylight exists between the Tories and Labour. Should the Conservatives win in May, they will allow a free vote on repealing the Hunting Act, which bans hunting with dogs. They will also continue and expand the badger cull. Labour stands opposed to both these policies.

There is massive public opposition to both the badger cull (42% against, 36% for) and fox hunting (80% against). So why are the Tories swimming against the flow? These debates hark back to the days before the UK’s politics became a bland amble to the centre. They are based on ancient rivalries between the country and the city, a small group of landowning toffs versus the renting class.

But most importantly, they are politically irrelevant. “It’s very easy for the parties to hold those different positions because they speak to different audiences that don’t really cross over … It’s very easy to get off the fence both ways,” says Harper. Few people will decide their vote on animal welfare issues. The Tories might grab a few votes from Ukip in rural areas and Labour from the Greens, but the floating centre has more pressing concerns.

Energy efficiency

The coalition government’s flagship energy efficiency scheme, the green deal, has become a traumatic experience for its architects. Despite recent successes in some aspects of the grants-for-home-improvements scheme, the overall take-up has been disappointing. This has left the UK’s desperately needed drive for household energy efficiency languishing.

The Conservatives are yet to outline exactly how they will approach this tainted issue in the next parliament. Harper suggests it is a case of once bitten, twice shy.

“I think the Tories feel burnt by the green deal and they haven’t really come up with how they’d deal with it. I’d be interested to see what’s in the manifesto on that. At the moment it just feels like they are still amazed that it didn’t work,” he says.

Labour on the other hand, smelling electoral blood in the water, has pre-emptively announced an interest-free loan scheme that will replace the green deal grants. As part of a five-part efficiency strategy, Labour says the loans will improve up to one million homes during the next parliament. But the Green Building Council has warned that Labour may have to further sweeten the deal in order to motivate homeowners.

Nature

Nature is the thorn in the free market’s side, that pesky “externality” that the UK’s major parties don’t really know what to do about. So on the whole, they ignore it.

“The thing that is absent from the narrative of both parties right now is a real vision for what they are going to do about nature. And how we’re going to stop the losing battle of our habitats and our local environment getting worse and worse with every passing year and for the last 50 years,” says Harper.

“That conversation, that ambition hasn’t really been owned by either of the main parties. Their manifestos will have to address it in some way and I think what you’ll see is a lot of the big natural environment organisations, like the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts and so on, will be pushing for … clear legislative plans to restore nature at a national level.”

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