It’s now official: 2014 was the UK’s hottest year ever. And, with global warming turning up the heat, 2015 promises to be a year of big decisions on climate change and a whole host of other environmental issues. Here, then, is my non-exhaustive list of environmental crunch points in the year ahead.
1) The battle to stop fracking. The future of shale gas exploration in Britain faces a crucial test this month with two key planning decisions in Lancashire in January. With over 20,000 people already objecting, the pressure is on the county council to turn down fracking firm Cuadrilla’s proposals to drill. If Lancashire rejects the frackers, it could sound a death-knell for fracking across the UK – lending momentum to other local campaigns against fracking in Yorkshire, Sussex and elsewhere.
2) The battle for Lodge Hill. A former MOD site in North Kent, Lodge Hill is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and home to the UK’s largest population of nightingales. Yet Medway Council want to cover the site with 5,000 houses. The housing crisis is obviously acute, but instead of looking at all the options, the council have chosen the worst one. What’s at stake here is not only the habitat of an endangered bird species, but the robustness of the UK’s entire conservation regime. Medway Council have some tough questions to answer this month – and if they fail to answer satisfactorily, the onus will be on the government to call in the decision and reject it.
3) The Infrastructure Bill. One of the last significant bits of legislation of this Parliament, the Infrastructure Bill is stuffed full of dirty policies: from allowing fracking firms to trespass under homes to drill for shale gas, to creating a legal duty to encourage ‘maximum economic recovery’ of North Sea oil and gas. Next week, MPs debating the Bill have the chance to clean it up a little – by voting for amendments to ban fracking near aquifers, and delete the clauses on trespass and maximising oil recovery.
4) Will this be the year the climate movement sparks mass action? This is a crucial year for the climate movement as pressure builds towards the UN climate talks in Paris in December. Three initial dates along that journey provide opportunities to demonstrate the public mandate for action: Global Fossil Fuel Divestment Day on February 14th; the London climate demo on 7 March; and a mass lobby of Parliament on 17 June.
5) Protecting Devon’s wild beavers and the rewilding revolution. Beavers have returned to England after hundreds of years, and governmental body Natural England faces a key decision in late January on whether to let them stay on the banks of the River Otter. But the return of beavers is just one moment in a wider question facing the conservation sector this year: how far will it embrace the rewilding revolution and seek to restore lost ecosystems, rather than just preserve what little we’ve got left? Watch out for the launch of a new organisation, Rewilding Britain, that will make the case for this shift.
6) Nuclear vs renewables. Plans for Hinkley C, Britain’s first new nuclear power station in over 20 years, are being finalised by EDF and the government. If EDF turns down the deal on offer, despite huge sweeteners, then the wheels are well and truly off the nuclear bandwagon. But if Hinkley goes ahead, it will gobble up money desperately needed for large-scale renewables. Renewable energy also faces a number of important planning decisions: on the Navitus Bay offshore wind farm, and the Swansea tidal power lagoon – one of the largest such schemes in the world.
7) How green will the General Election be? You might have noticed there’s an election this May. But as yet, environmental issues are struggling to get a look-in amidst debates on health, immigration and the economy, despite being intrinsically linked to the quality of our lives. Yet that may change as the ground war intensifies and local concerns about fracking, flooding and air pollution sting candidates that fail to address them.
8) Airport expansion. Sir Howard Davies’ Airports Commission will present its final report shortly after the general election, presenting the new administration with an immediate headache. If the government approves a third runway at Heathrow or a second runway at Gatwick, it will face huge protests from residents and climate activists. Aviation campaigns, off the environmental agenda for some time, will return with a vengeance.
9) The first 100 days. Whoever wins the election will face a set of imminent decisions on Britain’s energy system. What will be the UK’s global offer on emissions ahead of the Paris climate change talks? How soon will Britain phase out dirty coal? How quickly will we legislate for a 2030 clean power target – a decision that was passed over during a set of bruising Parliamentary votes in 2013? Will the new government introduce a fresh Energy Bill to fix Britain’s cold homes? Labour and the Lib Dems have both called for new plans to adapt the UK to worsening climate change; if either are elected, how soon will they deliver on these?
10) Roads to nowhere. Following George Osborne’s announcement of £15bn for new roads, some of the most controversial schemes will be fought tooth and nail – such as the Stonehenge tunnel and plans to put a road through the Peak District National Park. Transport campaigners will be pushing instead for a healthier, better joined-up transport policy that encourages cycling, walking and more use of trains and buses.
11) The fate of the EU’s Habitats Directive, air pollution and resource use policies. A fortnight before Christmas, it appeared that the European Commission might kill off two important packages on air pollution and resource use. Thanks to an outcry from businesses and green groups, they were spared the axe – but whether politicians’ pledges to re-introduce “more ambitious” packages happen remains to be seen. Meanwhile, President Juncker has set his sights on reviewing the Habitats Directive, one of the cornerstones of European conservation policy; the RSPB has pledged to “come out fighting”.
12) The Paris climate talks, December 2015. And so we come to the big crunch point at the end of the year – the UN climate talks, at which governments are under intense pressure to agree a fair, binding new global treaty to slash greenhouse gas emissions and keep global temperature rise well below two degrees. At stake isn’t only emissions pledges but also the equity of any agreement, and how far the world helps those most vulnerable cope with the impacts of climate change. And, of course whatever the outcome of Paris, that will only be the start of our efforts to peak global emissions between 2015 and 2020 at the latest. But it’s a challenge that millions of people around the world are already rising to meet, ahead of corporations and governments.