A year on from the prime minister’s letter invoking Article 50, the Brexit hourglass is now half full, or half empty depending on your political disposition. Optimist or pessimist, Leaver or Remainer, the fact is there is now less time for Theresa May and her enthusiastic Environment Secretary Michael Gove to deliver on their promise of a “green Brexit”.
But deliver they must, because the declining health and resilience of the natural world continues apace. Carbon continues to accumulate in our atmosphere, pollution settles in children’s lungs and wildlife is struggling against shrinking habitats and toxic chemicals.
Adding to the urgency is a series of crucial summits in 2020 on planetary challenges relating to biodiversity, oceans, sustainable development and climate. The international arena needs new confidence and ideas, which the UK could provide if it starts to show what’s possible.
Brexit will only be green if the UK improves its environmental standards, many of which stem from EU law. May herself said as much earlier this year: “We will use the opportunity Brexit provides to strengthen and enhance our environmental protections – not to weaken them.”
We need a bold new Act
Now the government must match its green rhetoric with the force of law. A Westminster Environment Act will be an important part of this. As the major environmental charities working together in the Greener UK coalition set out last week, new laws should give us:
1. Ambitious and measurable goals, to bind the government now and in the future. These would ensure, for example, cleaner air, less waste and a smaller global environmental footprint.
2. Strong principles, to underpin fair and far-sighted decision making, like polluter pays and the precautionary principle. These are fundamental to international environmental law, and are set out in the EU treaties, but they have yet to be embedded into the domestic statute book across all four nations. Gove has said these principles will be set out in a policy statement, but they have to be underpinned by legislation to be meaningful.
3. Independent institutions that uphold environmental law, champion citizens’ rights and prevent the roll-back of existing environmental protections. We have written before that Brexit will create a governance gap, as the UK will lose the oversight and accountability functions provided by the EU institutions. At least one new scrutiny body needs to be in place, even if on an interim basis, before exit day. Last autumn, Michael Gove promised a new watchdog to “hold the powerful to account”, but we are still waiting for the consultation.
The majority of environmental policy is devolved, so a Westminster Act would be limited to reserved matters, England-only matters, and, if the devolved administrations agreed, anything else requiring legislative consent. This underlines the need for constructive inter-governmental collaboration, so that either joint legislation can be agreed or separate laws in each legislature are complementary.
Chorus of voices in support
Consensus is rapidly emerging that bold new legislation is needed. The swelling chorus of voices now includes such august commentators as parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee led by Mary Creagh; the independent Natural Capital Committee and its chair Dieter Helm; Labour Brexit minister Matthew Pennycook; and author and former prime ministerial adviser Michael Jacobs. Perhaps most tantalisingly of all, even Michael Gove recently acknowledged that, “if we are to honour our pledge to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it, we must also leave the statute book in a better state than we inherited it.”
In its response to Greener UK last week, Defra agreed that new legislation is needed and says it is exploring with devolved administrations whether they wish to take a similar approach. But major questions remain. We need to know when the draft bill will be published, what its geographical scope will be, and whether the government will fulfil its promise of a “green Brexit” and raise standards beyond the EU baseline.
Under Gove’s leadership, Defra has proved adept at bringing forth eye-catching and inspiring policy initiatives, from banning bee-harming pesticides to tackling the international ivory trade. Indeed, plans for a deposit return scheme to cut plastic pollution were revealed the day before the Article 50 anniversary, so the news was dominated by talk of recycling, rather than whether the government will follow through on its green Brexit promises. With less than a year to go, we mustn’t lose sight of the bigger picture.