Friday Digest: The perils of target-setting

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has admitted that key targets set within its global plastic commitment are “unlikely to be met”. This year’s update takes on a very different tone to years past. Whereas previously there had been a mixture of pats on the back and gentle kicks up the backside for the big fmcg corporates involved, this year the results left the foundation with little leverage. Use of virgin plastic is now as high as it was when the programme started in 2018, while the percentage of plastic packaging that is reusable, recyclable or compostable has changed little and now sits at 65.4%.

Efforts to adopt reusable packaging models have also gone into reverse, while the elimination of problematic or unnecessary packaging is being led by lightweighting and packaging redesign rather than direct elimination. 

One brand not involved in the commitment (few foodservice brands are) but which has been ditching plastic this week is Burger King. The chain is removing all single-use plastic lids from soft drinks served to customers who are dining in at its UK restaurants. “[…] while spilling a drink is annoying, it’s not the end of the world… but single-use plastic could be,” its rather dramatic statement reads.   

New environment secretary Thérèse Coffey has an in-tray full of packaging policies that appear to be gathering dust rather than momentum. Think extended producer responsibility for packaging and deposit return schemes. Coffey, as a former waste minister, should have no problem getting up to speed and has already shown she remembers what the waste hierarchy is. Asked by the BBC about the behaviour changes she (and we) can make in the face of the climate crisis her first thought was cups “that we can recycle properly or reuse – I think that is a better way of doing it”.

How to encourage more reuse is moot. Behaviour change is not easy, and this has led the government to ignore it. In a piece for Green Alliance, Leah Davis, head of policy and external affairs at New Philanthropy Capital, notes how people rarely get a mention in government net-zero documents but “people have to be part of the solution and have a say. That means they must be empowered to create the solutions that work for them. Right now, we’re not doing that. Or at least, not in the ways we need to be. The environment movement has a ‘people gap’.”

survey of 30,000 people in 31 markets just published by GlobeScan shows there is widespread desire among consumers to change their behaviours to be healthier and more sustainable, but the gap between desire and action remains “persistent”. Some 68% at least somewhat agree that they would be willing to reduce their consumption by half to avoid environmental damage and climate change, which is encouraging. So too is the finding that, despite remaining less common than other sustainable behaviors like recycling and taking your own shopping bag to the supermarket, eating plant-based food has increased “significantly” across many important markets compared to before the pandemic – including the UK and the US. 

Eating less meat and dairy and more plants is essential in order for the UK to meet its commitment to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030 (versus 2020), according to Green Alliance. People need to follow diets closer to healthy eating guidelines, while cows need to be fed supplements to suppress their methane emissions. Bans on sending food and other biodegradable waste to landfill also need to be brought forward to 2025 (from 2028). Do all that and plug leaks from the energy sector and methane reductions could reach 43% by the end of the decade, the think tank said in a report. However, the pace of policymaking needs to pick up.

The mathane target was signed by the UK (and dozens of other countries) at COP26. Rishi Sunak has found the time to go to the COP27 climate talks in Egypt. The prime minister previously said he wasn’t turning up, despite the UK holding the COP presidency currently, but performed a u-turn, saying there is "no long-term prosperity without action on climate change". NGOs cheered, for a moment, then started demanding he shows that he means it. 

Indeed, it’s not only EMF that’s in the news for missing targets this week. The UK government has missed setting a range of long-term environmental targets relating to nature restoration, air and water quality, and waste. The deadlines for these were set out in the Environment Act and were due (by law) to be in place by October 31st. Oops. Coffey blamed the public in a letter to the Office for Environmental Protection, the green watchdog. There was just simply too much material and evidence to get through from the consultations, she wrote in a letter to OEP chair Dame Glenys Stacey. The latter was having none of it, though. "We remain concerned that there is a pattern of missing legislative deadlines,” she told Coffey. Labour’s shadow environment secretary described the missed deadline as a “monumental dereliction of duty”. 

The government was also told this week to get its own house in order when it comes to net-zero. MPs on the public accounts committee criticised the poor quality of emissions measuring and reporting across central government. “Vague guidance” and a failure to hold departments to account were identified as key issues. “A free for all on reporting veils progress or lack of it,” said committee chair Dame Meg Hillier, adding that the government “must be clearer and must publish consistent standards for measuring and reporting emissions across the public sector so that it can be properly held to account”. 

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