How the UK measures up in environmental league tables

meandering river smallThis post is by Alistair Taylor, senior policy officer at the RSPB.

You could have been forgiven for failing to notice that, on 5 April this year, a set of reports were published by the European Commission on how European Countries are performing on their environmental policies and laws. The Environment Implementation Review (EIR) reports are available for each of the 28 member states of the EU (currently including the UK).

These reports are an essential tool for gauging progress towards environmental recovery and assessing the extent to which European governments’ actions match up to their rhetoric.  So the EIR allows governments and broader civil society to assess performance in making progress towards national and international policy objectives and targets. And they can help identify where particular action is needed.

Europe-wide assessment is needed for cross border action
The EIR benchmarks the UK’s performance against that of similar countries facing comparable problems and, in many cases, deploying a similar suite of policy instruments. Faced with the catastrophic global declines of species and habitats and an alarmingly warming climate, it also supports the co-ordination of actions across national borders.

Brexit is likely to mean that future EIR reports will not cover the UK. The newly created environmental watchdog or watchdogs must replace EU-administered reporting mechanisms such as the EIR with equivalent independent UK processes. But achieving this throws up some significant policy challenges. They must be supported by the resources and expertise needed to compile, verify, analyse and publish the results in a timely and accessible format. As an EU member state, the UK has been able to rely on the considerable resources of the European Environment Agency (EEA), and its topic centre on Biological Diversity, one of seven such topic centres that assist the agency to report on Europe’s environment.

If we no longer participate in EU reporting mechanisms, we will need to create equivalents to the EEA. With the environment being a devolved matter in the UK this implies additional resource at devolved levels as well as for any central co-ordinating body. If, post-Brexit, the UK is no longer subject to EU environmental laws, any subsequent divergence in in regulatory or reporting frameworks could make benchmarking the UK against its European neighbours much more difficult.

In light of the government’s pledge not to diverge from EU environmental standards, Greener UK would expect the UK to continue measuring its performance against that of neighbouring countries in this way, in particular for shared species and habitats, and for common problems such as climate change and invasive non-native species. This requires close alignment between UK and EU environmental reporting processes. In Greener UK’s view this is best achieved by the UK remaining a member of the EEA, and continuing to participate in the EIR.

The verdict on the UK’s environmental performance
The UK government has been keen to stress its ambition to be a world leader on the environment, and governments of all countries of the UK do not want Brexit to result in any weakening of environmental standards.

The recently published EIR highlights areas of particular concern about the UK’s performance, including poor air quality, diffuse pollution and the lack of protection for seabirds. The report points out that, on the issue of air quality in urban zones, there has been no change in the high number of zones that exceed EU air quality standards for nitrogen dioxide. For 2015, the European Environment Agency estimated that about 9,600 premature deaths were attributable to nitrogen dioxide concentrations in the UK. The report also says that “The UK currently has 12 open infringements in the areas of water, urban waste water treatment, ambient air quality, nature conservation and environmental assessments.”

Failure to comply and failure to act
This highlights not only failures in compliance with existing standards but also a failure to take any effective enforcement action at the UK or country level.  The number and range of these breaches underline the need for robust enforcement mechanisms post-Brexit, as well as for immediate action by the UK governments to correct them.  That the country is in breach of such a wide range of environmental policy areas, and the subject of so many open infringements, would seem to suggest that we have some way to go before we can claim to be adhering to current standards, never mind demonstrating global leadership.

Reviews such as the EIR can reveal where political rhetoric is not being matched by action on the ground and that makes environmental reporting vulnerable to politically motivated attacks. Taking us out of EU processes such as the EIR may be seen by ministers as an opportunity to avoid such political embarrassment in future. Releasing bad environmental news when it is least likely to be picked up by mainstream press or shifting reporting goalposts to create a more favourable result might spare their blushes, but it fundamentally undermines the purpose of environmental reporting, and ultimately the achievement of environmental policy objectives.

That is why the RSPB, working with our partners in Greener UK  and Environment Links UK, will continue to press for effective, independent and adequately resourced governance and reporting arrangements across all countries of the UK to ensure that they can measure up when it comes to environmental performance after Brexit.

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