It is five years since Darebin, a jurisdiction in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, became the first council to declare a climate emergency. Cities in New Jersey and California followed. In 2019, the United Kingdom was the first country in the world to recognise the emergency at a national level, through all four of its parliaments at Westminster, Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont. Now, 1,868 jurisdictions in 33 countries have followed suit.
But declaring a climate emergency does not in itself make the climate crisis a priority. It merely opens the way to prioritise actions and legislation that will bring about change. In October 2019 the Government introduced its flagship Environment Bill to Parliament. It was delayed by the general election, and then by the first lockdown. This January, ministers again hit the ‘pause’ button, meaning the Bill will not pass into law until two full years after it was first proposed.
What is frustrating is that the legislation has so much promise. It pledges a green industrial revolution. It will set a legal framework for protecting our environment outside the European Union, with better air quality and testing targets on waste reduction. But each day of delay has a negative impact on the start-up businesses whose mission is to develop the solutions for sustainable growth. Plans are dashed, investment is jeopardised and confidence is sapped.
Despite Brexit uncertainty, the UK has repeatedly topped European venture capital investment charts for startups, and the South East in particular continues to be a hub for innovation. In the last budget the Government promised a £1bn support package for UK start-ups, eager to support science and technology, research and development. These measures demonstrate the Government’s ambition to ‘build back better’, but making a reality of the rhetoric is near-impossible while businesses are without the legal framework and guidance they need.
The nation’s startups and innovators are the engine behind a green industrial revolution. But in the absence of the legislation, they are stuck in limbo. Investors need clarity on the opportunities for the businesses that may hold the key to sustainable growth.
The delay also risks the UK falling behind the rest of the world on environmental standards. The EU has put the wheels in motion to place a ban on microplastics added to cosmetics, paint, detergents and nearly all other consumer and commercial products. This change could come into effect later this year, and is set to have massive impact on the 1.9m microplastic fragments found on every square meter of the ocean floor. Likewise, the Bill is an opportunity for the UK to follow the EU in banning so-called “oxo-degradable” plastics, which again break down in to harmful microplastics.
Both these measures are clear examples of solid sustainability legislation. European law sets out clear objectives, with a defined impact and a well-established timetable. In turn, industry and innovators have a chance to react and plan, in this case catalysing the growth of alternatives to plastic.
This November, the UN Climate Change Conference, Cop26, will be held in Glasgow. It is imperative that the Environment Bill is on the statute book by then, so the UK can show itself as a world leader in sustainability. And before the parliamentary process resumes there is a big opportunity for government to engage with cross-party calls for the legislation to contain specific targets on the reduction of plastics pollution. Far from lagging behind the European Union, the UK should be seeking to lead the continent.
We are fortunate in the UK to have some of the best science and tech innovators on the planet. Together we can export new solutions – like natural replacements for plastic – all around the world. The government should not delay its environmental agenda, but instead should grasp the great opportunity for Britain to lead the globe in a real response to the emergency our country was first to recognise.
Simon Hombersley is Chief Executive of Cambridge-based Xampla, which makes natural replacements for plastic