This post is by Lord Howard, the former leader of the Conservative Party and former secretary of state for the environment.
The British people have voted to take back control of their money, their borders and their laws. This huge transfer of power back to the British people gives us the opportunity to fulfil the government’s ambition to be the first ever British government to leave our environment in a better state than we found it.
The United Kingdom as a whole, and the Conservative Party in particular, have long been at the forefront of efforts to tackle climate change and improve the state of the natural environment. Margaret Thatcher was the first national leader to call for a United Nations treaty on climate change and I was privileged, as environment secretary under John Major, to play a part in the signing of the first global treaty on the subject at Rio in 1992. More recently, the UK was the first country to introduce a Climate Change Act.
More freedom to lead
In November 2017, Claire Perry MP pioneered the Powering Past Coal Alliance at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn and the UK’s last standing coal power plants will be closed by 2025. She recently reiterated that “ambitious climate action must continue, with the UK leading the way to a low carbon future”.
Outside the EU, the UK will be free to build on this proud record of leadership.
The first place we should look to explore the environmental, as well as economic, opportunities that Brexit will bring is in trade. British firms are leading the world in developing innovative low carbon goods and services: one in five electric vehicles sold in Europe is made in Sunderland; London is the global hub for green finance; and, in 2017, offshore wind reached price parity with fossil fuels.
Global demand for these goods and services is enormous. As emerging economies around the world look to leapfrog the dirty industrial phase of economic development, they will turn to environmental leaders like Britain for low carbon expertise. The global offshore wind market, for example, is expected to be worth more than £98 billion by 2023. At the helm of its own trade policy, the UK will be able to negotiate free trade deals that enable it to exploit these growing markets to the benefit of both British business and the global environment.
Better agricultural policy for the environment
Once we have regained control of our laws, we will be free to diverge from the EU in areas where we want to be more ambitious. One such area is agriculture.
Under the Common Agricultural Policy, we have witnessed a massive loss in biodiversity, with a 55 per cent fall in farmland birds since 1970. The current EU set up for rural payments is predictably bureaucratic and overly complex. Large subsidies are paid to landowners purely on the basis of the amount of land they own, while a much smaller pot goes towards environmental enhancement, yet is ineffectively administered. Leaving the European Union means the UK will be free to restructure its agricultural subsidy system, rewarding farmers for the way they manage their land, rather than for the amount of land they own. Under a new agricultural regime, governed by the principle of ‘public money for public goods’, farmers will have an incentive to improve water quality, prevent harmful air pollution and protect natural habitats.
It is clear that the government is determined to improve upon EU environmental standards post-Brexit. The White Paper Theresa May published in July 2018 proposes that the UK and EU should “maintain a common rulebook for goods, including agri-food”. But protecting the environment means more than maintaining high standards for tradable goods.
We need to ensure that our environmental standards are enhanced post-Brexit. In this spirit of ambitious environmental leadership, the government has set out plans for a world-leading, independent green watchdog to uphold environmental laws post-Brexit. A truly world-leading body will provide citizens with a robust complaints procedure and have the power to hold public authorities to account, not just central government.
The prime minister has also announced that the government will bring forward a new environment bill. This should set in law commitments to tackle air pollution, species loss and the scourge of plastic pollution.
Brexit is an opportunity to prove to the world that we do not need to sacrifice our sovereignty to be a global environmental leader. Outside the EU, the UK will be a greener, more ambitious country.