General Election results: what now?

Russell Savory

So the third election in five years is over. Here in Devon not a great deal has changed, but nationally it’s a new political landscape. The Conservatives have a clear majority and Brexit by the end of January looks as good as certain.

Brexit has divided the country for the past five years and almost paralysed it for the last two.  If the commentators are to be believed, it is this one issue above anything else that has dominated the latest election.  The night of the General Election was a time of wild celebration for some and heartbreak for others.  But Brexit will pass and we will move on.  My guess is that most of us will have shifted our attention to other matters well before the end of this new parliament.  And at the top of those concerns must surely be the fate of our planet.

The climate and ecological emergencies we face are very different from Brexit.  For a start they are not dividing our country – according to an Opinium poll, more than two thirds of British people think climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity.  And just after the EU referendum in 2016 an Ipsos Mori poll showed that 84% of people wanted environmental protections as strong or even stronger following Brexit. 

Grey seal

Credit, Paul Maylor

Neither are they going away.  They are intensifying.  Just this last week we have received two alarming pieces of news from scientists.  First, the oceans are becoming ever more depleted in oxygen, and this is having a serious impact on larger fish such as tuna.  Secondly, the Greenland ice cap is melting seven times faster than it was in the 1990s, and the melt rate is accelerating.  It’s worth noting that this massive frozen world is seven times the size of the UK and supports an ice sheet over a mile thick.  The jury is still out on whether the whole ice sheet would melt and how long it would take to do so.  But if it did, sea level would rise by 25 feet, threatening coastal cities around the globe.

The fate of nature is no less alarming.  Last month the SW Wildlife Trusts published a report, based on evidence gathered around the world, showing that 41% of insect species are under threat of extinction. Destruction of habitat and the growing use of pesticides are the chief culprits, along with climate change.  And if the insects disappear, so will many plants, birds and countless other species that rely on them.

No government could possibly claim to be able to reverse these dire trends in five years.  That will take consistent, determined and painstaking work over at least a generation.  What a responsible government could do is put in place the mechanisms to set us on the road to recovery. And it needs to do this extremely quickly, because right now we are accelerating in the wrong direction, and this is one mighty super-tanker that we are trying to turn around.

So what should Mr Johnson and his new team focus their minds on? Here are four challenges I would like to put to the Prime Minister, his government and every MP, whatever their political colour.

Paul Prestige

First, we need ambitious new environmental legislation.  We need a new Environment Act with ambitious targets to bring nature back on a big scale.  Because protecting what we’ve got, even if we do it a whole lot better than we’ve managed to date, simply isn’t enough.  We need our forests, wetlands, salt marshes and meadows for their precious wildlife of course.  But we also need them because of the crucial role they play in sequestering carbon.  Scientists tell us we need 30% of the land to be good quality wildlife habitat.  That’s double what we have here in Devon at the moment.  No small challenge!

Secondly, we need the laws and policies that govern how we manage the land and sea to back up these environmental targets.  Too much of our soils, our rivers and our coastal waters are degraded, polluted or over exploited.  Less than one fifth of Devon’s rivers are in good ecological condition, primarily because of slurry pollution and run off from farmland.  And the recent debacle of the Dutch super trawler, which cruised up and down the English Channel hoovering up huge quantities of fish within Marine Protected Areas with complete impunity, epitomises the archaic way we still manage our seas.

Third, we’ve got to take climate change a lot more seriously.  Sales of gas guzzling SUVs are 37 times higher than sales of electric cars according to the UK Energy Research Centre, and our vehicular emissions are still rising.  Progress on insulating our huge stock of Victorian houses is glacially slow.  And the transition to green energy generation has been progressing in spite of recent government policy rather than because of it. 

Finally, there’s the roll out and delivery.  The whole array of systems through which government prioritises and funds projects like transport infrastructure, regulates the behaviour of businesses, funds its agencies and enforces environmental standards needs to be overhauled.  Because right now there is a huge gulf between high level rhetoric and reality on the ground.  More often than not, the new bypass will trump calls to protect the patch of woodland.  Farmers or industries who pollute watercourses are far less likely to be prosecuted than they were even five years ago. 

What do we expect the new government to prioritise?  We all know there is a very big difference between what goes into a manifesto and what ends up as actual policy or law.  Nevertheless, comparing the green credentials of the party political manifestos has been interesting.  Behind all the huffing and puffing about planting unfeasible numbers of trees, all major parties had relatively strong and weak areas when it came to the environment.  The conservatives had some good things to say on new environmental laws, agri-environment schemes and tackling plastic pollution.  Their stances on maintaining environmental protections post Brexit and ensuring environmental justice were more worrying, and their plans on road building frankly alarming.  Plenty of room for improvement then.

Woodah Farm After Green Haying June 2016

The Conservatives are now in the driving seat and with a sizeable majority.  They are no longer so beholden to other political parties or factions within their own.  They are in a position of great power, and even greater responsibility.   So what should they do?

They can push through radical changes on how farmers are rewarded and set ambitious targets to restoring nature if they so wish.  They can provide the policy and regulatory framework to embrace the many new green technologies, such as electric vehicles, and embed them firmly in the mainstream economy.  They have the chance to show real leadership at the climate conferences in Madrid and Glasgow, and the Biodiversity Conference in Beijing next year.  And they can demonstrate how the country that kick started the industrial revolution 250 years ago can pioneer the next, green one.

Over the next few weeks Devon Wildlife Trust will be doing everything it can to remind our newly elected MPs of the climate and ecological emergencies, and their responsibility to make sure our government faces up to them.  If you want to make your voice heard, please write to them too.   The battle over Brexit may be coming to an end.  The battle for our planet is only just beginning.