Environment

Environment

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Everyone in the UK has an equal right to live in a country in which the natural environment is conducive to healthy living and provides equal opportunities to make the most of their potential.

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Fairness and the environment

This means an environment in which the air and water are clean, very high or low temperatures and other extreme weather events are rare, and everyone has access to nature to support physical and mental health. While this is a global issue, there is an urgent need for domestic action.

Tackling pollution

We must urgently tackle pollution in the UK. Air pollution in particular is harming the health of huge numbers of people, especially children, and it has a disproportionate impact on poorer communities. It is unfair that we do not take more decisive action, and it is unfair than those who are already disadvantaged suffer the most.

A fair transition to net zero

The debate about whether we transition to a decarbonised economy is largely resolved, but the debate over how we transition has only just begun, and will dominate public and political discourse for decades to come. Its central question is how the transition can be made in a way that is fair – in the words of Chris Stark, head of the Climate Change Committee, it is ‘almost the only question’. As we saw with the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests in France, delivering the transition in a fair way is crucial to securing legitimacy for and efficacy of the transition and building enduring public and political support. The transformation must be rooted in fairness – not only because the poorest communities are least responsible for these crises and invariably the worst affected, but because unless action to restore nature and decarbonise the economy is rooted in social and economic justice, it simply won’t succeed. The public have a veto over the net zero transition and will stop it if it isn't fair and they see no benefits.

We need a just transition to net zero. Supporting low income families through the transition is not just the right thing to do, it is essential for winning the political case and gaining consent for sustained and ambitious climate action.

Joseph Rowntree Foundation, November 2021

People and planet

The government must recognise and promote the economic case for investing now in a fair transition to net zero, taking account of the enormous financial and environmental costs of inaction as well as the comparatively small costs of implementing the necessary measures now. The same is true of the costs and benefits of climate adaptation (making the necessary changes now to prepare everyone for those impacts that it is no longer possible to avoid, such as more frequent severe flooding and storms), and of acting to reduce the severity of the biodiversity crisis.

These policies must be carefully designed so that the negative impacts on particular groups in society are either prevented or compensated for. For example, workers in fossil fuel industries must be fully supported to retrain and to find work in other areas of the economy, and homeowners and drivers must be supported to transition to greener heating and transport alternatives respectively, so that no one is disadvantaged by the changes needed and no one is locked out by being unable to afford them.

Tackling the climate and nature crises with the necessary speed and ambition must tackle economic and social injustice (and thereby promote fairness) at the same time. These two imperatives are interlinked, and must not be seen as being in opposition to each other. All decisions made must be both fair at the point of decision-making and fair throughout their implementation. We should introduce a ‘fairness lock’ for climate and nature policies so that people are fully involved in making decisions, costs are shared fairly, all policies are assessed for fairness, changes are accompanied by the necessary support and funding, and the UK makes a fair contribution on the international stage.

No one can be left out. A fair response to the climate and nature emergencies needs to increase equality in society.

Tees Valley and Country Durham citizens' jury from the IPPR Environmental Justice Commission

What needs to change

Everyone should benefit from a fair transition to net zero. We must make the necessary investments and take the necessary actions now. We can and must ensure that no one loses out as a result in the short term. In the long term, we will all reap the rewards of a healthier environment, a fairer society and a stronger economy.

A range of policy solutions have been proposed for tackling air pollution, including its disproportionate impact on low-income communities. These include:

  • Creating a network of Clean Air Zones across the UK (like the ULEZ in London), to prevent the most polluting vehicles from entering the most polluted parts of towns and cities
  • Helping people move on to cleaner forms of transport by promoting and subsidising cleaner vehicles, public transport, walking and cycling
  • Introducing a new Clean Air Act to safeguard our right to breathe clean air
  • Reducing the legal limit on levels of particulate air pollution to World Health Organisation limits (UK maximum levels for PM10 and PM2.5 are currently twice as high as the WHO recommends)

A broad range of actors are calling for the UK and other countries to introduce a Green New Deal to redesign the economy, with the aim not only of decarbonising the economy, protecting and restoring nature, reforming food production, providing clean water and air and green spaces for everyone, and creating millions of well-paid, secure and future-proof jobs (with livelihood guarantees for all those working in high-emission sectors), but also of transforming the economy more fundamentally to focus on health, fairness and community (‘serving the needs of people and planet’).

The Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain report sets out a comprehensive range of policies that will fully decarbonise the economy, by reducing our demand for energy by 60%, replacing fossil fuels with zero carbon alternatives, and changing our agricultural systems to balance out the remaining 8% of emissions from non-energy processes (such as cement production or methane from livestock) by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere through natural carbon capture from forests and restored peatlands. For example, it describes how better housing insulation and temperature controls would reduce energy demand for heating by around 50%, and how reducing how much we travel and changing how we travel would reduce energy demand for transport by 78%.

The final report of the IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission, Fairness and Opportunity, makes 109 recommendations on how to achieve a fair transition to net zero, covering a wide range of FF focus issues (such as democracy, work, wealth and housing). For example:

  • They argue that to decarbonise transport, we cannot simply replace petrol and diesel cars with electric cars (which still create pollution and require lots of resources to manufacture); we need to reduce the need for travel by promoting ‘20-minute neighbourhoods’ where most services that people need are within a walk, cycle or bus ride, and we need more affordable, convenient, joined up and quick public transport; meanwhile, investment decisions about transport need to prioritise tackling inequality, recognising for example that people in the lowest income households are half as likely to use cars as those with a higher income
  • They call for a new ‘GreenGO’ grant and loan scheme to retrofit houses with insulation and green heating, provided by central government and made available through every high street bank across the country; for a requirement that new homes are ‘properly assessed for their environmental impact, to ensure they add rather than detract from the local environment and for them to be energy efficient and low carbon from the get-go’; and for changes to the legal requirements for minimum energy efficiency standards in socially and privately rented homes
  • They set out plans for more government support for people working in polluting industries or whose jobs are otherwise affected by decarbonisation to retrain and learn new skills so that they can move into new jobs (a funded ‘right to retrain’), and estimate that tackling the climate and nature crises will create around 1.7 million new jobs by 2035 (in particular in retrofitting existing houses and building new social housing), but that unless investment is targeted to tackle regional inequalities, these opportunities will not be spread fairly across the country

A citizens’ assembly on climate, set up by six House of Commons select committees, was held in 2020 to show how a representative sample of the population believe the UK should deliver its 2050 net zero target. Their report set out over 50 recommendations on surface transport, air travel, heat and energy use in the home, food and land use, what we buy, generating electricity, removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and a green recovery from the COVID pandemic. Fairness (across sectors, geographies, incomes and health) was one of four key recurring themes in the assembly’s discussions.

A coalition of organisations has called for the introduction of a frequent flyer levy, under which everyone would be able to take one flight per year tax-free, but with an increasing level of air passenger duty levied on flights after that. This is designed to reflect the fact that 70% of flights from the UK are made by 15% of the population, with 57% not flying abroad at all, and therefore that the fairest way to tax air travel is to focus on the top 1% while making it easier for poorer families to afford one overseas holiday per year.

The former Bank of England governor Mark Carney has urged governments to step up their regulation of businesses to tackle the climate crisis because the financial free markets will not reduce greenhouse gas emissions alone. He argues that businesses will however respond rapidly to a clear policy direction set by governments, as happened with investments by Nissan and Vauxhall in electric car production in the UK after the government promised to ban sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

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The environment and fairness

The government must ensure that adequate policies, laws and regulations are in place to prevent or redress environmental harms, such as high levels of air pollution. Some of these harms might have a disproportionate impact on poorer communities, for example if they are situated near main roads or large industrial sites, and these additional impacts must be fully mitigated.

The government must also take decisive action to decarbonise the economy so as to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, and to ensure that the necessary changes are made to prepare everyone for those impacts that it is no longer possible to avoid. The same is true for the biodiversity crisis. These actions must be carefully designed so that the negative impacts on particular groups in society are either prevented or compensated for. For example, workers in fossil fuel industries must be fully supported to retrain and to find work in other areas of the economy, and homeowners and drivers must be supported to transition to greener heating and transport alternatives respectively, so that no one is disadvantaged by the changes needed and no one is locked out by being unable to afford them.

Tackling the climate and nature crises with the necessary speed and ambition must tackle economic and social injustice (and thereby promote fairness) at the same time. These two imperatives are interlinked, and must not be seen as being in opposition to each other. As a citizen’s jury set up by IPPR’s Environmental Justice Commission commented, “No one can be left out. A fair response to the climate and nature emergencies needs to increase equality in society.” All decisions made must be both fair at the point of decision-making and fair throughout their implementation.

The Environmental Justice Commission proposes the idea of a ‘fairness lock’ for climate and nature policies, which covers all of the costs and benefits linked to the transition to net zero, guaranteeing:

  • Procedural fairness (people are fully involved in decision making, including those who are most disadvantaged)
  • The fair distribution of costs for consumers and the taxpayer (including carbon pricing that protects those on the lowest incomes)
  • That all policies will be assessed for how they affect and involve places and communities particularly impacted across the UK; different people and communities including by income, age, gender, race and disability; and younger and future generations
  • That help is put in place ahead of change to allay anxieties and maintain public support (for example, households have the means to transition to low-carbon heating systems before regulations come into place)
  • That the UK makes a fair contribution internationally (recognising that there are varying responsibilities and capabilities to respond amongst different countries across the world)

Many poorer households live in neighbourhoods that suffer from higher levels of environmental pollution, in particular air pollution, and contain fewer green spaces. This is manifestly unfair as it exacerbates existing inequalities in terms of health outcomes and life chances.

As the fifth largest emitter in the world in terms of total emissions over time, and as the host of the crucial COP26 climate summit in Glasgow later this year, the UK has a particular responsibility to lead on the global stage on efforts to reach net zero carbon in a rapid, comprehensive and fair way, working with partners at the COP26 conference and beyond.

The debate about whether we transition to a decarbonised economy is largely resolved, but the debate over how we transition has only just begun, and will dominate public and political discourse for decades to come. We need to engage with this debate proactively, because its central question is how the transition can be made in a way that is fair – in the words of Chris Stark, head of the Climate Change Committee, it is ‘almost the only question’. As we saw with the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests in France, delivering the transition in a fair way is crucial to securing legitimacy for and efficacy of the transition and building enduring public and political support. The transformation must be rooted in fairness not only because the poorest communities are least responsible for these crises and invariably the worst affected, but because unless action to restore nature and decarbonise the economy is rooted in social and economic justice, it simply won’t succeed. The public have a veto over the net zero transition and will stop it if it isn't fair and they see no benefits.

The debate about a fair transition to net zero spans many of our focus issues, because it is about not just avoiding unfairness arising in the transition itself, but also addressing existing unfairness across our economy and society, in particular:

  • Taxation: How the costs of the transition are distributed fairly for individuals, businesses and the public purse through the tax system
  • Wealth: How expenses like energy bills are regulated and subsidised, and how poorer households are supported to make the necessary changes to their homes, transport and so on
  • Housing: How new homes are built to be zero-carbon from the outset, and how existing housing stock is retrofitted in a fair way
  • Work: How people working in heavily polluting industries are supported to retrain and to find work in other sectors, including in new green industrial parts of the economy
  • Democracy: How people are actively involved in deciding how the wide range of necessary changes are implemented, at both the national and local levels, rather than having changes imposed on them from above

Questions of fairness and the net zero transition also link closely to the debate above levelling up to reduce place-based inequalities. This relates to the distribution of economic investment, the impacts on new and existing jobs, and to who is most affected by the impacts of the climate and nature crises.

Aspects of fairness relating to gender, race and disability are also key, since some people, already disadvantaged by our current economic system, are being impacted disproportionately by the environmental crises and are also at risk from badly managed policy responses.

Learning from other countries

IPPR identified four lessons that the UK can learn from other countries about a fair transition to net zero, based on experiences of industrial transitions in Germany, Sweden, Canada and the US:

  • Development of a positive vision: Plans need to journey towards something positive, not just away from something negative. There must be a desirable future that feels like progress which workers, communities and the public can buy into.
  • Engagement: Engage with the workers and communities who are affected. A just transition must be something workers and communities feel as if they have a stake in; something that is done ‘with’ and ‘by’ them rather than ‘to’ and ‘for’ them.
  • Co-design and co-production: Governments, businesses, workers and unions, civil society and local communities need to co-design and co-produce transition plans. Coordination between stakeholders is crucial to make sure that everyone’s goals are aligned.
  • Funding isn’t everything, but it is essential: Substantial funding is not a sufficient condition but it is necessary for a just transition. Plans, targets, engagement and collaboration are essential but will go nowhere without meaningful funding to enact them.

The Scottish government commissioned a report for its Just Transition Commission, looking at how far five countries (the US, Canada, Germany, Norway and Peru) have gone in terms of embedding the broad principles implied by ‘just transition’ in their plans, strategies, policies, and activities, as well as lessons from other countries about how to achieve structural change, particularly around land use, tenure, and ownership, in the context of carbon emissions reduction efforts. Among other lessons identified, it recommended that a just transition must distribute the benefits and burdens of transition equally across the population, based on ‘effective forms of procedural and distributive justice’ that focus not just on fossil fuel workers but to wider vulnerable populations, as well as addressing gender, racial and class disparities and redressing ‘systemic injustices that exist under the current fossil fuel dependent social, political and economic paradigm’.

The situation today

The IPCC published its sixth assessment report this year, confirming that the climate crisis is unequivocally caused by human activities and is unequivocally affecting every corner of the planet’s land, air and sea already, and that we will reach a temperature rise 1.5C in the next two decades, while we can only prevent further rises through “immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions” in emissions, of which there is no sign to date. The report catalogues the disastrous impacts of each degree increase in global temperatures, many of which we are already starting to see, including extreme flooding and droughts, wildfires, rising ocean levels and disruptions to global food supplies, and parts of the globe becoming uninhabitable by humans, as well as laying out the increasing risks of tipping points. The report makes clear that the people in richer countries like the UK will be severely affected, even if those living in developing countries will bear the brunt of the most severe consequences.

A recent analysis suggests that ‘business-as-usual’ will result in economic and industrial growth slowing down, stopping and then declining rapidly from about 2040, leading to significant declines in food production, industrial output and human welfare and potentially to social collapse well before the end of this century.

Air pollution is cutting short the lives of billions of people by up to six years, according to a new report, making it a far greater killer globally than smoking, car crashes or HIV/AIDS. A 2019 study found that, despite over ten years of air quality policy, inequality in exposure to traffic-related air pollution has widened, and that while young children, young adults, and households in poverty have the highest levels of exposure to air pollution, it is the richer households who are more responsible for it. An evidence review by UCL found that deprived communities continue to suffer disproportionately from pedestrian deaths, pollution and isolation which can result from living near busy roads.

41% of species have declined in the UK since 1970, and today we are one of the most nature-depleted countries on earth. Meanwhile, the COVID pandemic has brought home how green spaces are vital for our physical and mental health. Yet the poorest and most marginalised have the least access to parks and gardens, and children are growing up in a world where nature is harder to find. Adults in the lowest income groups spend the least time in nature.

The costs of decarbonising our economy are not evenly shared across society. Low-carbon policies, such as renewable energy subsidies, household retrofit and installation of smart meters, add an additional 13% to household energy bills. Given that the lowest income households spend 10% of their income on heating and powering their homes, whereas the highest spend less than 1.5%, any increase in prices hits the poor more. As a result, low-income households pay disproportionately more towards low-carbon policy costs (the poorest 5% of households spend over 1% of household income on low-carbon policies, compared to an average of 0.4%).

Inequality also leads to unfair sharing of the burden of risk of environmental disasters such as flooding. For example, local authorities often come under pressure to turn a blind eye to flood-risk maps in order to permit thousands of “affordable” homes to be built for those priced out of higher ground.

There is strong public support for more rapid and decisive action by government to achieve net zero. The Green Alliance found that 62% of people want to see increased government spending on environmental issues and 59% support changes to the tax system that make environmentally damaging behaviour more expensive and help people and businesses do the right thing. Bright Blue found high levels of support for a range of government policies for achieving net zero, including requiring firms that work for government to assess and report on their carbon footprint (66%), providing tax breaks for businesses which have cut emissions (59%), introducing a carbon tax (52%), taxing investment in fossil fuels (51%), establishing a new emissions trading scheme for businesses (50%) and installing smart meters in all homes and businesses (49%), as well as strong support for providing subsidies for low-income households. There is public support for radical action by government, as long as it meets two key tests: firstly, that it is necessary, and secondly, that it is fair.

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