Bonfire of retained EU environmental laws could deliver £82bn blow to the UK

A new report from a collection of UK charities and NGOs has warned that removing or weakening environmental laws retained from the EU could cost the UK economy more than £82bn over a 30-year period.

Bonfire of retained EU environmental laws could deliver £82bn blow to the UK

The recommendations are based on polling of more than 1,500 survey participants and discussions with farmers and policy experts

A new report, The economic costs of the Retained EU Law Bill, from groups including the Wildlife and Countryside Link by the Economics for the Environment Consultancy has investigated the potential economic impact that the REUL Bill could have if environmental laws are weakened across chemical regulation, water pollution, air quality and habitats.

The Bill is to be debated in the House of Commons on today (18 January) and if passed would “sunset” the majority of regulations retained as part of the withdrawal process from the EU that expire at the end of the year.

The new report from green groups argues that removing or weakening existing legislation across key environmental sectors could further destroy nature, worsen public health and incur costs of £82.94bn over the next 30 years.

The research warns that losing the Water Framework Directive standards would likely lead to increased levels of agricultural pollutants flowing into water streams, which would increase the wastewater and sewage that is then pumped back into the natural environment. The report warns of a £20.6bn cost over the next 30 years.

The report also warns that poorer air quality levels could costs £10.4bn over the next five years, rising to £44.9bn over 30 years. It states that weakening the National Emission Ceilings Regulations through the Retained EU Law Bill would impact health and the environment.

An additional £1bn could be lost due to weaker protections for key nature sites, whereby deregulation and the weakening of Habitat Regulations would see key biodiversity hotspots degraded or even destroyed. This would also jeopardise the UK’s net-zero ambitions.

The final sector analysed is that of chemicals. The report warns that £12.8bn will be lost market opportunities from weakened chemical regulation over 30 years.

It states that there are “huge business opportunities” for the UK in the recycled packaging sector, for example, but that weakening chemicals regulation diminishes the potential returns and will see businesses in key sectors miss out financially. Additionally, weakened chemicals regulation could cost £3.6bn over 30 years as adverse health impacts such as cancer and infertility become more common.

The report notes that the REUL Bill covers thousands of other retained EU laws, meaning the overall costs are likely to be far higher.

The Wildlife and Countryside Link’s chief executive Dr Richard Benwell said: “Prevention of air and water pollution, protection of precious wildlife and habitats, precautions against hazardous chemical use – they are all put at risk by the Retained EU Law Bill. If long-standing protection for nature is removed or weakened, the economic consequences could run into the billions.

“Add to this the costs of years of uncertainty while half the environmental statute book is up in the air and thousands of hours of civil service time spent reviewing laws simply because of where they came from. All together, the costs of this economic and environmental wrecking ball bill could be astronomical at a time when the UK – and our environment – can least afford it.”

The green groups also warn that weakening of the Habitats and Species Regulations could see important nature sites chosen for “unsustainable development projects”, while weakening the Marine Strategy Regulations, could lead to a decline in habitats including seagrass meadows and saltmarshes – both of which act as carbon stores and would further derail the net-zero movement if destroyed.

The report and the campaigners backing it are calling for the Bill to be withdrawn.

Sunset scares

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak campaigned on promises to ensure that UK law diverges from EU law in instances where this could create higher standards and economic benefits. Under Truss, the Government ushered in the Retained Law Bill, which is designed to ensure that the majority of EU laws retained in the UK post-Brexit expire at the end of 2023. The rest of the laws should then be phased out by June 2026.

The Bill was swiftly criticised by green groups who claimed that hasty changes could lead to a downgrade in environmental and social standards. Moreover, delivering the Bill, some have argued, would redirect civil service resource from progressing the pressing changes to legislation needed to meet key climate and nature targets, following years of delays already.

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) itself has now warned the Government against a rushed approach to ‘sunsetting’ EU legislation. It is recommending that the 2023 deadline is moved.

The RSPB’s director of conservation, Katie-jo Luxton said: “This new economic report shows that the REUL Bill could cost the taxpayer more than £1bn over the next 30 years simply by opening the door to a weakening of current environmental protections. Having  just published legally binding targets for nature recovery through its own Environment Act, it is baffling that the UK Government is now seeking to dismantle the legal protections to achieve them.”

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