Theresa May’s speech at the Conservative Party conference last weekend put the UK’s environmental future into a holding pattern. Her announcement that through a ‘great repeal bill’ all current EU law and regulations would be transposed into UK law, means that, like an airplane, the UK can circle for a little longer above the complexity of its changing relationship with the EU.
The stability this brings is welcome. It is a sensible and pragmatic approach which avoids the engines cutting out and the UK legal system crashing to earth, bringing with it the principles, laws and regulations that have gradually protected and improved the UK’s environment over the past 40 years: the very protections that the public want to see maintained.
Welcome certainty for business
It also brings welcome stability for UK businesses investing in low carbon and resource efficient technologies and solutions. For now, they can have certainty that product standards on energy efficiency will remain consistent with Europe, and that trade barriers for exports into and out of the UK will stay down.
With the significant change in the UK’s legislative framework, the prime minister’s promise of parliamentary scrutiny and full democratic debate of the great repeal bill is also welcome, though it must be implemented carefully in practice. It’s vital that MPs are able to scrutinise decisions fully, as they will affect our environment for years to come.
But, as with any plane in a holding pattern, at some point it has to land. It is unclear how turbulent that landing will be, but what the government has been clear about is where it wants to land.
Government is showing clear commitment and ambition on climate
The government has set high ambition on the environment for this parliament. Its manifesto commitment, reiterated by the new secretary of state for environment and rural affairs, Andrea Leadsom, is to leave the natural environment in a better state than it inherited. It is a laudable aim, and, in a country where the natural environment is in decline, will be no mean feat to achieve.
Theresa May’s recent announcement that she will ratify the Paris climate agreement and Greg Clarke’s intention to introduce a low carbon industrial strategy likewise show clear commitment and high ambition for UK climate policy. And more than 70 MPs have already signed up to a new pledge for the environment , committing to support UK legislation and agreements which match or exceed current environmental, wildlife and habitat protections.
But Brexit means it won’t be straightforward
But the recent announcements on Brexit mean that meeting these commitments during this parliament won’t be straightforward. The government will have to navigate storm clouds gathering on the horizon if it is to achieve its ambitions.
There are three big dangers:
- That the complexities of exiting the EU will overwhelm the government, allowing cracks in environmental protections
David Davis’ caveat that EU law will be transposed through the great repeal bill ‘wherever practical’, combined with Theresa May’s indication that once transposed into UK law, government will undertake a process of ‘unpicking’ UK legislation, poses the real risk that the government and parliament will get bogged down in debating the minutia of legal text, distracted from the impactful policy that will help it reach its goals. If rushed through, these decisions will create holes in the complex web of principles, regulations and legislation that have protected and improved our environment for generations. To avoid this, the government will need to quickly secure the current baseline of environmental legislation, so that future efforts can be directed at improving the current framework to meet its ambitions.
- That the government won’t be held to account on its own commitments
We now know the government’s intention is for the UK to no longer be subject to the European Court of Justice. Post Brexit the UK will therefore need its own independent empowered institutions to hold government to account on its own legal commitments. ClientEarth’s legal challenge against the government on its failure to meet air quality standards, which has been linked to the early deaths of 40,000 UK citizens every year, shows only too well the need for strong and independent checks on government.
- That the government fails to live up to its ambitions of international leadership
For the past 40 years the UK has left it to the EU to take a lead on a range of international environmental areas. Cross border regulations directly applied to the UK, the application of international agreements, such as the Aarhus and Bern Conventions, and the embedding of principles such as ‘polluter pays’ have all been led by the EU. As the government seeks to make the UK a global leader, it will have to fill these gaps, ensuring it doesn’t fall behind its global competitors and spiral into a new status as a low standard economy.
The path will be turbulent, but is undoubtedly navigable, if the government focuses on its own ambitions and commitments. The strategy most likely to bring us crashing to earth is if we attempt to slowly pick parts off the plane, hoping it stays airborne. What we need is a flight path that ensures a smooth landing.