We need to worry about what Theresa May’s speech means for our environment

Ruth's blog smallIn her Mansion House speech in March 2017 the prime minister said “As we leave the EU we will uphold environmental standards and go further to protect our shared natural heritage”. But her speech yesterday appears to ignore the government’s commitments to improve and not just maintain standards.

On the face of it the commitment that “there will be no change in the level of environmental protection when we leave the EU” should be reassuring as the government has repeatedly said that standards will not be weakened by Brexit. But no change infers no improvement which, when facing an environmental crisis, seems very wide of the mark.

What people expect from a green Brexit
While the term ‘green Brexit’ is regarded suspiciously by some as ‘greenwash’, its interpretation by the Environment Secretary Michael Gove has provided some reassurance. He has said repeatedly that Brexit is a chance to improve and not merely carry over the environmental protections currently provided by the European Commission and European Court of Justice, and that “Green Brexit is our chance to give the environment a voice in this time of national renewal”. When viewed alongside reports that the environment dropped off the list of priorities for the recent cross-party negotiations, the prime minister’s comments ring alarm bells. The sooner the environment’s voice can be un-muffled the better.

Are workers’ rights more important than environmental protections?
In her speech, Theresa May described the Withdrawal Agreement Bill that the government will shortly be introducing to parliament to provide a legal basis for the UK’s exit from the EU. We already had questions about the bill, such as how will environmental non-regression be captured in law. But her speech yesterday further entrenched the view that environmental safeguards are a lower order priority than workers’ rights, when of course both are vitally important.

Given its aspirations to be world-leading on the environment, the UK government should have no qualms about committing at least to keep pace with the EU on environmental standards and the Withdrawal Agreement Bill would be a convenient and appropriate vehicle to do this.

Global leadership begins at home
Michael Gove has also said that in a green Brexit “the UK will champion international action and continue to work with our European neighbours to protect the globe”. But it is hard to lead on the international stage if your own house is not in order. All the ingredients are there to make this happen: a manifesto commitment to leave the environment in a better state, a raft of upcoming legislation and a commitment to hardwire environmental action into government decision making. But without political support and championing from all parts of government these opportunities will be hard to realise and momentum will be difficult to sustain.

People want change
People are hungry for change and polling reveals that the environment has become a more significant issue when choosing how to vote at the ballot box. The thousands of people who took to the streets this spring as part of Extinction Rebellion protests did so because they want action. Parliament did not declare an environment and climate emergency on a whim. The crisis is real and urgent action is required, as comprehensive scientific studies from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the Committee on Climate Change demonstrate.

One million species are on the brink of extinction and a warming climate will have catastrophic implications. So the ‘greenest government ever’ should not be just a catchphrase. It is a political necessity.

Here are the five things the prime minister could do to get back on track and make her legacy something to be proud of that transcends Brexit:

  1. Publish an ambitious Environment Bill quickly. We have already set out how the bill needs to be improved.
  2. Act on net zero
  3. Use the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to enshrine a legal commitment that standards will rise in the future and not decline.
  4. Retrieve the agriculture and fisheries bills from cold storage and improve them so that these important sectors can thrive in future in an environmentally sustainable way.
  5. Ensure close environmental co-operation is at the heart of the future EU-UK relationship

The time is now
Greener UK and The Climate Coalition are organising a mass lobby for climate, nature and people called The Time is Now. On Wednesday 26 June, thousands will be heading to Westminster to urge their MPs to set the foundations for a brighter, greener and more secure world. MPs have already started to pledge their support by signing our Charter for the Environment. This must be matched by an unequivocal and unambiguous government response that sets us firmly on the path to ending the UK’s contribution to climate change and ensuring a healthy environment for people and nature.

[Image courtesy of Takver via Flickr]

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