Five green policy priorities to stop Brexit ruining our environment

From the delivery of an ambitious 25-Year Environment Plan to the avoidance of ineffective 'zombie legislation', Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) executive director Matthew Farrow outlines the key steps that must be taken by the Government to ensure Britain's exit from the EU will not have a negative impact on our environment.

As the Article 50 debate rumbles on in the House of Lords, there is a clear sense that the Brexit ‘phoney war’ is coming to an end, and that the pace of events is about to quicken significantly. This makes it a good time to consider where environmental issues stand within the Brexit big picture and the Government’s plans for a post-Brexit economy.

In terms of Brexit specifically, while the planned Great Repeal Bill is a welcome start, I see five priorities for urgent action.

First, we need a much clearer Prime Ministerial commitment to world-class environmental standards. The current mantra that ‘we will be the first generation to leave the environment in a better place than we found it’ just doesn’t cut the proverbial mustard to my mind. Taken literally, it means what, exactly? That the Government would be happy if NOX levels in our cities were slightly lower in 20 years’ time than today? That recycling rates in 2030 are at 45%? That CO2 emissions are down by 10% on today’s numbers? Divorced from the steady strengthening of green standards and policies that EU membership has provided, we need a much more specific set of ambitions with some credible thinking as to how they will be met. My hope is that Defra’s long-awaited 25-Year Environment Plan will provide this, or at least be a solid first draft. My understanding is that the Plan has been signed off by Defra ministers and is awaiting clearance at No 10. We need it published by the time Article 50 has been triggered to begin the process of providing reassurance both to the public and to the investors who drive the green economy forward.

Second, we need to give careful thought as to how to avoid the risk of so-called ‘zombie legislation’, where simply ensuring that specific legislation is carried over into UK law is not sufficient to enable the actual implementation of the policy. A good example would be REACH – the EU Chemicals policy framework. REACH is not just a set of laws but a live system, run by the European Chemicals Agency (ECA) in Helsinki. It is doubtful that the UK would be able to take part in the REACH system and make use of the ECA without a series of concessions (eg abiding by judgements from the European Court of Justice on chemicals policy, and paying part of the ECA’s budget) that might be unpalatable to UK ministers. Possibly, we could try to replicate the ECA on a UK scale but that would not be an easy undertaking.

Third, we need to develop and build a consensus around UK-specific targets in a range of environmental areas. At the EIC, we have recently called for a debate on targets for England for recycling for 2025. Our thinking is that we are struggling to meet the existing 2020 EU-set recycling target, and what is more important for the industry is to what is the ambition for the following decade. EU targets, such as those in the circular economy package proposals, have to compromise between what would be appropriate for Member States such as Germany and Austria whose recycling rates ae already over 60%, and those such as Cyprus which have not yet hit 20%. So, while we might decide simply to copy the circular economy package targets, it is worth doing what Wales and Scotland have done in England and considering what would be a genuinely ambitious but also credible target that would be relevant to the public and help business and local authorities plan. 

Fourth, while the vast majority of EU environmental law should be kept as it is, there are some examples where the original regulations were poorly drafted or not especially effective in a UK context. An example might be the Separate Collection provisions of the Waste Framework Directive, or the Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme (ESOS) where the current EU regulations generate process with limited outcomes and need strengthening. Let’s use Brexit as an opportunity to revitalise such areas of policy.

Lastly, many of the EIC members I talk to in the environmental sector are very concerned about the risk of skills shortages caused by Brexit as immigration controls are tightened. The UK’s environmental goods and services sector is very much an international one, and there are many citizens of other EU countries working within it – ranging from air quality modelling specialists in large consultancies to laboratory technicians at environmental laboratories and energy management equipment installers working for property developers. Of course, many non-environment sectors have concerns as well, and ministers need to be aware of the full range of skill areas where radical restrictions on EU migration could have implications.

Aside from managing the implications of Brexit for the sector, we must also consider how we can best make use of any opportunities that might come our way. One such example here is the Government’s revived enthusiasm for an Industrial Strategy. The environmental sector is bigger than pharmaceuticals or aerospace, has great export potential and creates jobs across the UK. It is also vital to delivering the Government’s other objectives – for instance, we will not build the planned million new homes and avoid destroying the Green Belt unless we scale up our land radiation sector and focus on brownfield sites. So, it deserves a place in any Industrial Strategy worth the name.

Matthew Farrow is executive director of the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC)

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