Baroness Parminter: Government must incorporate natural capital into long-term thinking

An Office of Environmental Responsibility should be created to drive green governmental thinking and take account of natural capital in the UK, Baroness Parminter told the Resourcing the Future Conference yesterday (27 June).

Baroness Parminter: Government must incorporate natural capital into long-term thinking
Giving one of the keynote addresses at this year’s conference, Baroness Parminter, the Liberal Democrats’ Environmental Spokesperson in the House of Lords, told delegates from across the waste industry that environmental inertia within Westminster means that long-term plans are vital to protect the natural environment and provide a sustainable industry post-Brexit.

The speech kicked off the two-day conference, which will today see former European Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik address members of the waste and resources industry, and Parminter quickly railed against the lack of political appetite for resources and the environment amongst the government.

According to the Baroness, the current approach is “systematic of a broader failure of government policymaking to deal with issues of resource efficiency and the circular economy – topics that will increasingly come to characterise the successful economies of the 21st century”.

Resources need to be looked after

Like most issues to do with the environment, she said, waste only hits headlines when something goes wrong. However she pointed out that the fall in the UK’s recycling rate to 44 per cent, driven predominantly by a drop in the English rate, has not caused a stir. The drop, says Parminter, is “a government failing, not a household one”.

Looking forward, Parminter stated that government needs to demonstrate how it will meet Circular Economy Package targets, “no longer a theoretical problem” and one that Parminter predicts will be required should the UK strike a deal to remain in the single market following Brexit.

And while global markets for green technology is “booming”, future progress in the UK is being hampered by a lack of policy. This could have a severe knock-on effect on the country’s industry, Parmenter suggested, pointing to a survey by the Engineering Employers Federation in 2012 found that 80 per cent of UK manufacturers identified raw material shortages as a risk to their business.

Subsequently, the Baroness called for the establishment of “a new system to force the government to think and act in the long term” and that incorporates natural capital, which should include subjects like clean air and raw materials, into the national accounts, creating an institution responsible for creating and monitoring this natural capital.

She suggested that as part of this an Office of Environmental Responsibility could be created, which would run along the same lines as the Office of Budget Responsibility. This new governmental department, she suggests, could develop a mechanism to identify and put in measures to reduce key natural resources being used in the UK and would help departments create business plans and strategies as well as looking at policies and helping embed their environmental objectives into practices.

Parminter was speaking the day after the Independent reported that the government’s 25-year plan for the environment, which the industry hopes will provide some of this long-term leadership, could be delayed until next year, a fact that she called “incredibly damaging” and indicative of a lack of political will.

With the Repeal Bill’s promise to transpose the corpus of European environmental legislation in its entirety likely to cause issues regarding ‘zombie legislation’, Parminter says that the long-term plan is needed to indicate what we plan to do with our natural government after Brexit.

‘Politicians listen when groups come together’

When asked by the audience how the industry can force its way onto the political agenda, Parminter said that the industry has been “hampered” by its inability to mobilise emerging public concern around flashpoint issues like plastic waste. At present, she says, fragmented responses are not having the desired effect in turning outrage into political action.

The nature of our politics and media, she said, is that action revolves around single issues rather than big pictures, and so grabbing these flashpoints is important for driving resources up the political agenda.

She added that creating a common voice to convey these issues as “politicians listen when diverse groups come together”, pointing to the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals in the late 90s.

The annual Resourcing the Future conference is put on by three of the industry’s largest trade associations – CIWM (waste professionals), the Environmental Services Association (waste companies) and the Resource Association (recyclers and reprocessors), with WRAP also joining this year.

However, Parminter also warned that Brexit now controls top spot on the political agenda, with the UK’s impending departure from the EU set to dominate discussion and resources for the next two years (at least). This means that space to resolve other issues will be constrained.

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