Don't look back in anger? Two lost decades for our environment

Built Environment, Energy & Climate Change, Management & Regulation, Natural Environment

Don't look back in anger? Two lost decades for our environment

Alastair Chisholm joined CIWEM’s policy team 20 years ago this month. Looking back, he finds that the more things change, the more they stay the same – and the time has come for something more radical

1999 was a fairly unremarkable year as far as the environment goes. 1997 had seen the Kyoto Protocol ratified. 1998 saw the Aarhus Convention (on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters) signed, a shot in the arm for stakeholders on environmental issues. The ozone hole had reached its largest size on record, but atmospheric concentrations of CFCs were now reducing; the Montreal Protocol remained a recent enough example that the international community could act decisively on existential environmental threats.

Meanwhile, the Worldwatch Institute reported that 7 out of 10 scientists believed we were experiencing possibly the largest mass species extinction in history, and the Hadley Centre warned of runaway climate change inside 50 years. The UK, it said, would face increasingly extreme weather. The global population exceeded 6 billion.

As we moved into a new Century, negotiations in 2000 over the detail of national commitments under the Kyoto Protocol were struggling as major emitters led by the USA pushed to contain carbon emissions to just 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. Meanwhile, industrialising nations pushed for billions of dollars to help them with adaptation. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was “gutted” at the inability of the EU to gain greater ambition from the USA as talks broke down.

In March 2001, the G8 had pledged to finalise and ratify Kyoto only for George Bush and Dick Cheney to say 10 days later that promising to regulate carbon dioxide emissions was “a mistake”. The US refused to ratify Kyoto and the tone was set for year upon year of frustration and alarm on climate for the environmental community.


Twenty years on, much of this sounds depressingly familiar. Even to the point that at the time, domestically, we had one of the more engaged and proactive environment Ministers in Michael Meacher, who continually stood up for the environment against No 10 through the early Blair years. Now we have the unlikely parallel in Michael Gove, albeit as Secretary of State rather than a junior Minister, ploughing a comparable furrow as an environmental champion within government.

But what is really apparent as one looks back is the litany of failed progress, of watered-down ambition and the demise of positive initiatives or constructive entities which actually existed. Despite a growing clarity on the nature and scale of environmental risk, many good initiatives were abandoned. The Code for Sustainable Homes, Zero Carbon Homes, the Green Deal, Schedule 3 of the Floods and Water Management Act, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Sustainable Development Commission, closure of the Climate Ready service, and the privatisation of the Green Investment Bank are all examples of where forward-thinking environmental ambition was abandoned.

It is hard to escape the view that this was largely because of dogmatic adherence to a narrative that they were a drag on growth or a burden on the public purse. This was probably compounded by the lack of a Meacher or a Gove to adequately fight their corner within Government at the time.

Of course, there have been successes and progress. We understand how to manage the environment in a more integrated way these days. Some rare species of birds, mammals and fish have returned to places they hadn’t been seen for decades and our mapping and modelling of everything from climate systems to water flows is improving as technology advances, such that we are able to plan and manage water resources, flood risk or diffuse pollution for example, more effectively. And the UK does have a Climate Change Act.

Yet broadly, the trajectory remains either decline or lackadaisical progress despite the big headlines of mass extinction and potentially catastrophic climate change remaining. Sure, the UK has cut carbon emissions by upwards of 43% on 1990 levels but most of that is low hanging fruit, very little of which remains. And globally, the pace of atmospheric CO2 concentration continues to grow, and grow more quickly, likely to exceed 410ppm this year. Evidence is increasingly emerging of dramatic declines in insects and other organisms at the base of the food chain.

Hold the front page

Twenty years ago, we dreamed of seeing climate change or species extinction headlines on the front pages or heading up TV news, so they got the attention they deserved. Now we have that, but it feels uncomfortable.

Twenty years ago, we had time and a comparatively benign geopolitical landscape to put in place the changes necessary to avert a gravely unpalatable future. Now, the headlines are prominent because the evidence is so stark and compelling that mainstream media no longer regards the environment as niche or a ‘nice to have’. They’ve actually twigged that it’s a gravely imperilled, multidimensional life support system for humanity. But now we have fake news, digital interference in politics, and growing populism and nationalism to distract and complicate international collaboration and cooperation.

Twenty years is a hugely sobering timespan with which to put the estimated 12-year (and closing) window of opportunity to tackle carbon emissions into perspective. It’s gone pretty fast, and really, we’ve achieved nothing like what we should have.

Scientists have taken criticism for not communicating their messages on the environment compellingly enough. That may or may not be fair. As a professional institute, CIWEM has espoused professionalism, evidence, impartiality and a measured, constructive approach to putting its messages across. We are probably less restrained than many similar bodies in saying what we think, and we work with NGOs who are typically more comfortable with being noisy and putting decision makers’ noses out of joint to make themselves heard. But as a professional community it’s hard to think we’ve shouted loud enough.

The kids are alright – for now

This year it’s becoming evident that change of the magnitude necessary won’t come from this anyway. The Student Climate Strikes show that the generation who’ll bear the brunt of the planetary damage we and our forebears have wrought don’t trust us to move quickly enough to address it. Without a vote, and inspired by Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg, they are taking to the streets. They’re skipping school to protest the lack of urgency our politicians attach, and our generations demand, to tackling this looming threat to their futures.

The response from Government has been predictable: Theresa May said “Disruption increases teacher's workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for… That time is crucial for young people precisely so that they can develop into the top scientists, engineers and advocates that we need to help tackle this problem."

Sure, there are truths in there, but Mrs May misses the point that we have the science and engineering talent we need within our profession already. We know what we need to do. If anything, it’s the advocacy we’re coming up short on, which is precisely the gap that the students are trying to fill - now, before it’s too late. Without a vote, how do they otherwise make enough of a point to change the continuing inadequate political will?

Education Secretary Damian Hinds took the patronising to a new level when he said, “let me be clear, missing class won't do a thing to help the environment.” Look back twenty years Mr Hinds, and ask yourself if things would be a bit more comfortable for everyone and whether these young people would be striking if our homes were already being built zero carbon and highly water efficient as standard?

It’s all very well Philip Hammond trumpeting the Future Homes Standard in the spring statement but by the time it comes in it’ll only be replacing – badly – what was canned more than 10 years before.

If existing homes were well on the way to being energy efficient, if SuDS systems were being built to high standards and adopted and maintained readily and if UK businesses were supported by a thriving and world leading green bank allowing them to not only decarbonise our economy rapidly but export new technologies throughout the world, students may well be happy to stay in class and learn to contribute to such positive and inspiring change.

Looking back makes me angry. And frustrated. Because the warnings of twenty years ago were right. The pictures of mass extinction and potential climate breakdown have become sharper in their focus, their colours more intense. In essence, though, they’re the same. Except they’re now visibly happening. As a professional community we worried, and we cared. We increased our understanding and developed solutions. But we didn’t demand they were implemented loudly enough. Now students are assuming that mantle. They’ve every right to be very angry.

There is a landmark piece of environmental legislation due to pass through parliament in the form of the Environment Bill over the next year. This needs to be as strong as possible, to drive radical change in how we care for and restore the environment. Government has spoken of world-leading frameworks. As a profession and as individuals we must stand beside the students and demand just that. We can’t wait 20 more years.

Share this article

Become a member

Whether you are studying, actively looking to progress your career, or already extensively experienced, our membership will add value and recognition to your achievements. We can actively help you progress throughout your career.

Become a member

View our events

We organise a wide portfolio of UK and international thought leading events, providing an industry recognised forum for debate, CPD and sector networking. These events also support our policy work and inform key initiatives.

View our events