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Royal Commission for Environmental Pollution (RCEP)


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What Was the Royal Commission for Environmental Pollution?

A three-decade long UK government enquiry into the effects of pollution on health and the environment, notable for its work on nuclear power and climate change.

The Royal Commission for Environmental Pollution was a long-running UK government body that was established in 1970 and continued until 2011, when it was finally shut down by the then Cameron administration as part of the austerity measures following the 2008 banking crisis. Although funded by DEFRA, the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs, like similar Royal Commissions, it was independent of government and not affiliated to any one department or minister.

The commission was given a wide-ranging remit to advise the government on a number of topics related to pollution, which was very loosely defined as any emitted substance or energy that could lead to harm to human and animal health, damage to resources and structures, or that could interfere with normal use of the built and natural environments. The commission was comprised of an ever-changing board of prominent experts taken from academia, public life, and relevant industrial sectors, who carried out this task via the publication of 29 publicly available annual reports aimed at influencing policy making bodies by providing detailed, empirically driven analyses of relevant topics.

Environmental issues examined by the RCEP

Issues examined during its lengthy three-and-a-half decade run included pollution related effects either caused by or impacting on the following topics:

  • Agriculture
  • Air quality
  • Artificial lighting and its effect on the natural environment
  • Chemical production
  • Climate change
  • Crop spraying
  • Demographic changes and their impact on energy needs
  • Energy planning
  • Marine life
  • Pollution levels
  • Genetically modified organisms
  • Soil quality
  • Sustainable development
  • Waste incineration
  • Waste management
  • Water quality

The Commission examined these issues from a variety of perspectives, looking at economic, ethical, and social impacts, as much as technical issues. Two of the major themes of the Commission’s work that relate particularly with the area of energy use and energy production were its study of the effects of nuclear power and its role in advising a series of governments on climate change.

Nuclear Power and the Environment (1976)

One of the Royal Commission’s most famous contributions to UK public life was the publication of the 1976 Report on Nuclear Power and the Environment, published in September of that year, and often simply referred to as the “Flowers Report”, after the appointed chair of the panel, Sir Brian Flowers, a prominent physicist and public official. The motivation for the report was the establishment of the Windscale nuclear waste processing plant in Cumbria, later more famous under the name of Sellafield.

The report, over eleven chapters and two hundred pages, provided a detailed examination of the controversies surrounding the storage and disposal of nuclear waste from fission power stations, looking at the issues from technological, radiobiological, social and ethical perspectives, along with those of reactor safety and international politics. Calling nuclear power a “Faustian bargain”, the report advised against pursuing it as a government policy unless long term provisions were made to store the waste until it no longer posed a threat to the public. While this advice was not followed, the report did lead to the government adopting new responsibilities from 1982 onwards towards waste management and to conduct studies into the efficacy of current storage provisions and research possible longer-term solutions.

Energy - the changing climate (2000)

The second main theme addressed by the Royal Commission that touches on energy issues was one of the most pressing topics of this century, namely climate change. The commission’s 22nd annual report, titled “Energy - The Changing Climate” examined the long-term effects of climate change on life in the UK and made recommendations to mitigate global warming by making suggestions as to how the UK can play its part in reducing emissions. The report advocated a sixty percent reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2050, a rather conservative target and one limited in ambition by present day standards, but one that was considered radical and far-sighted in the era of the report’s publication.

The report examined the impacts of such a reduction on government, the economy, and individual households and made numerous recommendations aimed at both the Westminster government and the newly devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. These included a call to reverse the decline in government spending on related research and development and an examination of how greater efficiency and use of renewables could allow carbon reduction without resorting to the more controversial option of nuclear energy, taking into account the changes in national grid infrastructure this would require, in order to cater for the creation of numerous small-scale, local generating units.

Tom Blundell, the commission chair, called a continuation of current emission levels “reckless”, poi nting out that climate change would disproportionately affect the world’s poorest. The report’s follow-up, the 28th annual report “Adapting institutions to climate change” (2010), was even starker, using the following quote from HG Wells as its opening epigraph: “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”

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