This article was originally published on Business Green.
It’s been more than six months since the prime minister triggered Article 50, what’s commonly referred to as “the starting gun” for our departure from the EU. If you imagine Brexit as a race, then, that means that we’re over a quarter of the way through the process that will, in theory, conclude on 30 March 2019 at the latest. At that time, EU treaties – all 750+ of them – and the various laws and regulations that have accumulated over the past 40 odd years – including more than 1,100 pieces of environmental law – will cease to apply here.
Whether or not there is a transition deal in place by that time, all sorts of heroics will be needed to get the country safely across the finish line. Despite the urgency implied in the race metaphor, though, it feels like there has been very little movement so far. Margaritis Schinas, the European Commission’s chief spokesperson, recently condemned Theresa May’s use of another sporting analogy, telling reporters: “This is not exactly a ball game… There has been, so far, no solution found on step one, which is the divorce proceedings, so the ball is entirely in the UK’s court for the rest to happen.”
The risks are on the rise
Leaving sports references aside for the time being, one area where there has been movement – and not for the good, I’m afraid – is in the potential risks to the environment from Brexit.
Greener UK’s Risk Tracker monitors the UK government’s approach to safeguarding environmental protections through the Brexit process, and its second instalment saw the level of risk rise in general, mainly because of shortcomings in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. That bill, which passed its first and second readings during the June to September update period, fails to carry over fundamental principles of environmental law such as polluter pays and reduces UK citizens’ ability to hold the government to account.
The second risk tracker instalment has also seen a third area receive a ‘red’ rating, as waste and resources has joined air pollution and chemicals in the ‘high risk’ category. At first, this might seem a bit strange, as environment secretary Michael Gove’s first major speech – delivered at WWF during the update period – saw him specifically choose to address the unglamorous world of waste, highlighting the problem of marine litter and the solution of waste reduction, while promising a “renewed strategy on waste and resources”. This will be welcome, following a decade in which England, at least, has not seen the publication of an overarching strategy to guide activity in the area.
If this moves us towards better use of resources and waste minimisation, it will be welcome. However, there are significant concerns that this new strategy could, instead, see the UK heading in the opposite direction and diverging from the progress of our European neighbours, who are in the final stages of agreeing their own new resources strategy.
Another set of negotiations
The EU’s Circular Economy Package (CEP), amending six key pieces of EU resources legislation, has gone through its own rather torturous negotiations, but is expected to be agreed by the European Parliament, Commission and Council by the end of the year. But, as member states will then have two years to transfer the amended directives onto their own statute books, it won’t necessarily have to be transferred into UK law by the time the Withdrawal Bill completes its task.
Defra has already indicated that it does not expect the country could meet the CEP’s more ambitious headline recycling target (which will be between 60 and 70 per cent for 2030). The department says the proposed target is “too high to be achievable” in England, despite Wales already recycling 64 per cent, and multiple reports and internal Defra analysis showing the economic and environmental benefits of higher recycling. Demonstrating a defeatist lack of ambition before the package is even agreed suggests that, even if the package is transposed here during an implementation period, recycling won’t get the policies and investment it needs.
Stepping back or racing forward?
As we’ve seen in the past few years, a time when Defra “stepped back” from waste policy work, local authorities faced tightening budgets and recycling rates fell for the first time, recycling (and resource management more generally) suffers without strategies, targets and funding to drive it. England’s sole existing target for recycling – 50 per cent by 2020, set by the EU – is already looking out of reach.
The 13 major environmental organisations that make up the Greener UK coalition are united in the belief that leaving the EU is a pivotal opportunity to restore and enhance the UK’s environment. And so, when Michael Gove says that he wants the new waste and resources strategy to “look ahead to opportunities outside the EU”, we would welcome greater ambition in areas like waste minimisation.
But, as we’re racing against the Brexit clock, this must be done in a way that at least matches the EU’s ambitions on resources as will be set out in the CEP. Doing so will ensure ease of trade with Europe going forward, help businesses plan for the long term, add as much as £9.1bn in gross value added and hundreds of thousands of jobs to the economy, and keep billions of pounds of resources in circulation while fulfilling people’s overwhelming desire to recycle. Doing otherwise would make losers of us all.