The Environment Act should be a Sustainable Economy Act

Two adorable kids, feeding the seagulls on the beachThis post is by Michael Jacobs, director of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice and former Downing St adviser (2007-10) on environment and climate change.

Crunch time is coming. Over the next few months the government is likely to publish a draft Environment Bill to replace the core principles and institutions of EU environmental policy making which will be lost after Brexit. Though such a bill is unlikely to be passed into law until 2020, most observers expect its core content to be agreed in draft form before next year’s 29 March departure day.

Yet there’s a paradox at the heart of this. It is imperative that we retain as much EU environmental law as possible after Brexit, because of the risk that British governments may otherwise wish to lower environmental standards, not least as part of post-Brexit trade deals with countries (such as the US and China) whose own standards are lower. In most fields the EU has the highest environmental standards in the world. Yet, at the same time, we know that these standards are not high enough. They have not prevented the continued degradation of the environment in critical fields such as soil erosion, plastics pollution and habitat and species loss; and they have not required us to act deeply or fast enough in reducing greenhouse gas emissions or air pollution.

At present the government’s proposals for an Environment Act have focused on two core elements. First, ensuring that the main principles of EU environmental policy – such as the precautionary principle, and the requirement that public bodies take the environment into account in decision making – are set into UK law. Second, the establishment of an environmental watchdog which can hold the government to account in the implementation of environmental policy, replacing the role currently played by the European Commission and European Court of Justice.

EU law has not been enough to protect the environment
There is no question that these elements are vital. But if we know that EU law, good as it is, has not in fact been good enough to reduce our environmental impacts to sustainable levels, they are not sufficient. An Environment Act which maintains an inadequate status quo would surely be a terrible missed opportunity.

It is for this reason that the NGO campaign (under the ‘Greener UK’ banner) has called for the Environment Bill, not just to maintain the EU framework we are losing, but to improve it. Greener UK has called for the bill to embody new and higher environmental standards.

But this immediately runs into a problem. What standards? In the short time available before the bill is finalised there is no chance that we could all agree on new standards in fields as diverse and complex as species conservation, waste minimisation and air pollution. Defining such standards will require scientific analysis, economic and social impact assessment, consultation and negotiation. The government is simply not going to do this in the next few months, even if it wished to.

There is another way. Rather than defining new environmental standards itself, the bill could require governments to do so in the future. Indeed, it could go further. It could require by law that these standards reflect the principle of sustainability; and that governments introduce concrete policies and plans to achieve those standards.

This proposal has recently been made by the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice, a wide-ranging enquiry into the economy whose final report, Prosperity and Justice, was launched in September by the Archbishop of Canterbury and other leading figures from business, trade unions and civil society.  The Commission calls for a ‘Sustainable Economy Act’ which would enshrine the principle of sustainability in UK law.

A Sustainable Economy Act would build long term goals into law
The Commission notes that we already do this for greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The 2008 Climate Change Act requires the UK government to set GHG targets (carbon budgets) every five years, on a trajectory to a mandatory 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050. This goal was adopted as the UK’s fair contribution to the goal of limiting global warming to under 2C. (In the light of the recent IPCC report on achieving 1.5C it now needs to be amended to require complete decarbonisation by 2050.) By law, the government must then produce policies and plans to achieve them. The independent Committee on Climate Change advises on what these targets should be, and reports to parliament on the government’s performance in meeting them.

A Sustainable Economy Act would apply the same principles to the rest of the economy’s environmental impacts. It would require governments to set long term goals and five year targets for all major impacts, both domestic and global, and to produce concrete policies and plans to achieve them. It would establish a Sustainable Economy Committee to advise on the goals and targets, and to report on their achievement.

Turning the Environment Act into a Sustainable Economy Act on these lines would solve the problem raised by the government’s current proposals. It would go beyond general principles of policy making to ensure that the specific standard of environmental sustainability – reducing impacts to levels consistent with the earth’s planetary boundaries – was built into UK law. It would require the adoption of statutory goals and targets, but not require them to be specified in the act itself. And it would allow the new watchdog to hold the government to account, not just to meet whatever goals it sets itself, but to achieve the goal of sustainability mandated by the act.

It’s extremely unlikely that there will be more than one major piece of environmental legislation in this parliament. Shouldn’t we ensure that it achieves what the planet actually needs?

Michael Jacobs will become professor at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) at the University of Sheffield later this month.

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