The prime minister has laid out her “comprehensive and carefully considered” Brexit plan pledging to bring as much certainty and clarity to each stage of the Brexit process as possible. It was perplexing, then, that the environment was not mentioned once during her 45 minute speech. Significant questions remain about the future of the UK’s environmental protections and how we will work with allies abroad to build a healthier and safer world. Today, most of the UK’s environmental law and policy is based on EU law, so its absence from Theresa May’s speech leaves the Brexit plan falling short of its comprehensive objective.
Good signals on parliamentary scrutiny and infrastructure
The appearance of a plan at all was, of course, very welcome, bringing a new level of clarity to the Brexit process. In particular, it was reassuring to hear May promise full parliamentary scrutiny of any changes to the body of EU law, once transposed to the UK through the Great Repeal Bill. This impels the government to prevent the bill from containing any ‘Henry VIII’ clauses, which, in the words of a House of Commons Library briefing, would allow the government to “circumvent the full legislative process”. It gives some welcome confidence that environmental protections will be maintained.
Another confidence-inducing aspect relates to climate change: May talked about using this “moment of national change” to build a stronger economy, to be achieved in part through infrastructure investment. An obvious place to start is clean energy, which was mentioned, later in the speech, as an area of innovation where Britain can lead, “to better understand, and make better, the world in which we live.” Perhaps this could add impetus to the UK’s renewables industry: recent Green Alliance analysis of the government’s own figures projected a decline in renewables investment by 95 per cent between 2017 and 2020.
Co-operation is environmentally rational too
It was heartening to hear of the prime minister’s commitment to internationalism, as it is clearly in the UK’s interest, as well as the interests of the UK’s allies overseas, to ensure continued collaboration on several areas including science, technology and foreign affairs. But collaboration in the fields of environment and climate change is just as essential and mutually beneficial, if the UK is to achieve May’s ambition of being “safer, more secure and more prosperous”. Businesses benefit from dealing with common environmental standards in the different countries where they operate; fish swim and birds fly across borders; greenhouse gases mix in a shared atmosphere. Co-operation is not just economically rational, it is environmentally rational, so the omission of environmental co-operation appeared at odds with the prime minister’s global ambitions.
Take climate change, for example, which requires co-operation with allies in the EU and beyond. On the same day as May’s Brexit speech, the President of China addressed the World Economic Forum at Davos, firmly setting his sights on status as the world’s foremost climate diplomat, in the face of president-elect Trump preparing to dismantle the US’s hard-earned high standing. A bilateral US-China climate deal was a major step towards the eventually successful Paris Agreement in 2015; and the EU’s early commitment to building consensus and raising global ambition has also been crucial. While the UK should definitely seek to use its leadership on climate change as one of the bases of its soft power, its willingness to co-operate on climate with the EU will also be critical if it wants to continue to play in the big league.
How will the government protect and restore nature?
The omissions from May’s speech leave us with no certainty on the future of environmental protections. This is a pivotal moment for the environment, at a time when nature is struggling and the air in our cities is doing us harm. An estimated 80 per cent of the UK’s environmental policy is based on EU law, and we know that 80 per cent of the British public want protections maintained or strengthened after we leave the EU. Yet, without an appropriate and considered plan of action, some of these would cease to function in any coherent way upon the UK’s exit. As well as transposing the body of law through the Great Repeal Bill, the government will need to secure appropriate governance and institutional support, because there will be reduced incentives to comply with existing legislation once the monitoring and enforcement functions currently performed by the Commission and European Court of Justice are removed.
Why, then, did Theresa May neglect to mention the environment? The absence of the environment from the Brexit plan is baffling, given that the government has not shied away from environmental leadership at other times: Andrea Leadsom, secretary of state for Defra, has stated her commitment to environmental protection, aiming for ours to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than that in which we found it; a 25 year plan for the environment is on its way; parliament approved the fifth carbon budget in July; and new rounds of auctions for renewables were announced by Greg Clark, secretary of state for BEIS, in November.
Risk of trading away environmental protections
But not a word on the environment has passed the prime minister’s lips. We need to hear from her in particular, because she is the one who is ultimately in charge of the Brexit negotiations. When push comes to shove, she makes the final call. As the government negotiates free trade agreements, our environmental protections could be at risk, rolled back through the give and take of the deal-making process.
Following Theresa May’s speech we, and our partners in the Greener UK coalition, are still uncertain as to whether the country’s environmental standards will be maintained and enhanced. Bringing the environment into the UK’s negotiating objectives would make them stronger and truly comprehensive.
For example, the ambition of co-operating on the environment could sit alongside the ambition to co-operate on security and foreign affairs, recognising the mutual benefits of existing partnerships on topics from climate change to migratory species. A commitment to protect environmental standards could work in parallel to the ambition to protect workers’ rights; both are areas where the British public has no desire to see backsliding.
Only with a healthy, resilient environment for our own and future generations can we truly create a strong, fair, outward looking Britain.
[Image: PM speech: 12 objectives for Brexit, courtesy of Jay Allen (Crown Copyright) from Flickr Creative Commons]