Green Brexit: Safeguarding Britain's environment
What impact will Britain’s exit from the EU have on environmental policy? Green Party peer Baroness Jones, who voted Leave, and Liberal Democrat Baroness Parminter, who backed Remain, assess the risks and opportunities
The government must seize the opportunities Brexit offers and reimagine our strategy for food, farming and the countryside, writes Baroness Jones
As someone who cares passionately about preserving environment for future generations, I see that leaving the EU presents parliament with a formidable challenge and two big opportunities on the environment.
Nobody needs reminding of the complexity of Brexit. A former parliamentary draftsman said transferring the body of EU law into UK legislation would be “the largest scale legislation and policy process that has ever been carried out”.
On the environment alone there are more than 200 laws covering water and air quality, waste management, nature protection, industrial pollution control, chemicals and GMOs, noise and forestry.
The prime minister has given the impression that everything will be copied over intact. But Brexit secretary David Davis and environment secretary Andrea Leadsom have indicated that they will transfer across laws “wherever practical”, and that as many as one third may prove “impractical” for the UK.
So we must work with environmental NGOs and experts on the huge challenge of ensuring important laws and standards aren’t lost in a blizzard of primary and secondary legislation.
But we also face two opportunities.
The first is to give these laws much more bite. The EU Commission and courts enforce the law, but they have been ineffective in holding our own government to account for its multiple failures. Around a fifth of all infringement cases with the EU relate to the environment.
I spent over a decade in London’s City Hall trying to get the commission to hold our UK government to account for our abject failure on air pollution.
Last month I was taken around central London by a cabbie to measure the most dangerous pollution, tiny particulates called PM 2.5s. The air monitor reading only once dropped below twice the legal “safe” limit (there is no certainty about there being any safe limit at all), and near Euston it leapt to five times the limit. We have known about this problem for 20 years, but successive governments have wriggled off the hook.
At the moment the government seems to want to drop all enforcement mechanisms and to avoid any legal obligations. We must ensure that there are new domestic monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, perhaps similar to the committee on climate change, and give them full parliamentary backing to be much more effective than the EU mechanisms they replace.
The second opportunity is to challenge the deeply un-green project of promoting endless industrial development and growth which is at the heart of the EU project.
The contradiction between this agenda and environmental policies is stark when you look at the countryside. Nature directives butt up against a farming subsidy regime hell-bent on industrialising our countryside, with some residual measures for nature that try to mop up the damage already done.
Many of those residual measures came from UK governments. Now isn’t the time to reject our heritage and introduce policies and subsidies that maximise short-term financial returns at the expense of our soil and nature.
If the government truly wants to be the first to leave the environment in a better state than it inherited, it should seize this opportunity to reimagine our strategy for food, farming and the countryside.
Rather than unpicking protections for nature reserves in the name of “growth”, we could be transforming our entire countryside into a nature reserve, one that supports sustainable food production and rural tourism, reduces flood risks, helps us mitigate and adapt to climate change and restores a green and pleasant land.
In ecology, we see that everything is connected. The great opportunity in Brexit is in recognising this, and placing this insight at the heart of Defra’s work. Let’s remember the motto, “no planet, no people”.
Baroness Jones is a Green Party peer
Environmental safeguards must not be weakened once the UK is outside the European framework, writes Liberal Democrat Baroness Parminter
It’s easy to forget that in the 1970s Britain was known as the “dirty man of Europe” – with good reason, given its record on issues such as beach water quality. EU legislation and policy for the protection of the natural environment changed all that and created one of the best – possibly the best – of such frameworks anywhere in the world. It’s welcome therefore that the government has committed post referendum to the incorporation of EU legislation through its ‘great repeal bill’.
The government has, however, only committed to incorporating EU regulations into UK law “wherever practical”. Clearly that’s not unreasonable, but it mustn’t be an excuse to water down environmental standards.
George Eustice, the farming minister, attacked “spirit-crushing” EU directives including, explicitly, the birds and habitats directives – and he and colleagues criticise the use of the precautionary principle as the basis of EU legislation.
The current government’s attempts to water down the EU’s approach to the regulation of neonicotinoids or to avoiding implementing the ambient air quality directive make clear that the threat of environmental standards falling after Brexit is a very real one. Not forgetting Thérèse Coffey and the minister for exiting the European Union, Robin Walker, at the Commons environmental audit committee in September, who were asked seven times if the government would retain EU air quality limits following Brexit. Neither made the commitment.
I believe the government should commit that any adjustments to EU environmental laws needed to fit the realities of post-Brexit UK must provide the same or a higher level of environmental protection as those in the original regulations.
Another problem post Brexit is enforcement – we will lose the compliance framework provided by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice. This has proved its worth time and time again; for example, the recycling targets finally adopted by the UK government were driven by the threat of infraction.
Andrea Leadsom, the secretary of state for the environment, has asserted that UK courts will deal with any matters concerning the enforcement of environmental legislation, but who will initiate action through the court? This can be an enormously costly process. I believe we should implement fully the provisions of the Aarhus convention on access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters.
We also face the impact of the removal of the overall framework provided by EU policy, such as successive environmental action plans. The government must set out strategic frameworks to replace those we will lose through Brexit.
The most urgent need is for an equivalent structure to that provided by the Climate Change Act for the protection of habitats, land, water and air.
The government has committed to producing a 25-year plan for the natural environment but if it does not set ambitious targets for the UK’s stock of natural capital and biodiversity, and place a duty on all government departments and public bodies to implement it or for it to be underpinned by legislation, with a body to help deliver progress – most obviously the natural capital committee – it will be judged a failure.
Brexit gives some opportunities to improve environmental policy. Because EU policies, of course, are not perfect. The UK’s departure from the Common Agricultural Policy presents a major opportunity for the government to reshape the country’s land management and agricultural policy. Future UK policy, and the financial support allied to it, must reward farmers for delivering a natural health service – producing healthy food and building up the natural resources we rely on, namely healthy soils, carbon storage, clean water and flood prevention.
An independent commission should be set up to ensure future food and farming policy dovetails with the 25-year environment plan. It would listen to all stakeholders and make recommendations to the government, making good on the reality that Defra just doesn’t have sufficient resources to undertake this pivotal task alone. There are too many jobs at stake, as well as the risk to an environment that we all rely on, if we get this wrong.
Baroness Parminter is deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords and spokesperson for environment, food and rural affairs