Suffolk energy expert Peter Gudde says we have an opportunity to reignite a drive towards a greener world
Spring 2021 is a bit of a milestone for me as it will mark 10 years of Green View. So, I hope you will indulge me, as I am sure you always do, with some reflections on the past decade to gauge whether we have made progress with the big environmental issues of our times.
Especially at this moment, learning from the past may help to frame what we do next as we return to a very different kind of normal albeit for the next year or so.
When I first started writing this column in 2011, we were a year into a coalition government which had declared its ambition to be the greenest ever.
The full extent of the Deepwater Horizon marine oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was just being realised. We had just had the hottest year on record. The human population was about to exceed seven billion a mere 13 years after hitting six billion and we were losing 12 million hectares of forest globally every year, an area just about the size of England.
Since then we have experienced six of the top 10 hottest years on record with over a 99 per cent chance of 2020 ranking up there. Although the annual rate of deforestation has declined during the decade to 10 million hectares between 2015-2020, the loss is still unsustainable with its impacts on carbon storage, species and habitat loss, water quality and soil loss, flooding and the associated harm on local people who rely on the forests as their home. The consequences of this habitat loss are so relevant and vital to us today since thy provide some of the genetic diversity to solve some of the big health problems we face.
Closer to home, since 2010 we have experienced a step change in how much renewable electricity we produce. Back in 2011, I wrote about the rise of so-called green energy and whether government incentives would be enough to lead us away from our reliance on fossil-fuels. Scroll forward a decade and we reached a milestone last summer when, for the first time in over a century, our electricity was coal-free. Renewables generated a record 42 per cent of the UK’s electricity in 2020.
But the story is not so good for the UK’s natural environment. Generally, 14 of the long-term measures of biodiversity used in the UK are getting worse. Improvements in river water quality plateaued during the last decade with the regulator, the Environment Agency, now rating only 14 per cent of our rivers as being good for animals and plants. The state of our internationally designated habitats and species in the UK is deteriorating, especially for woodland and farmland birds.
UK waste recycling rates have declined slightly since peaking mid-way through the last decade. We are still chucking away more than we bring back into the materials supply chain – that’s simply not good enough. Recent national news has highlighted the increase in fly-tipping with recorded incidents climbing relentlessly since 2010 to over one million in 2018 when the latest data was collected (and hopefully not thrown away!). We saw scenes after Lockdown One of irresponsible day-trippers leaving their rubbish for local communities to sort out.
I suspect that I have painted a bit of a bleak picture in my review with maybe more steps backwards than forwards. However, I could have showcased some amazing advancements which give real hope to be able to deal some of the big challenges, which I won’t simply put in the environmental box as they give benefit on our lives than that.
I suggest, therefore, that in our effort to reset the new normal we do so by learning from the last year and more broadly the last decade. We have a real opportunity to set a better course as we step cautiously beyond our front doors, back into a world living with Covid-19 but with purpose to recover our economic, social and environmental confidence.
-- Peter Gudde is an energy advisor and environmental researcher