A month into the new government and the prospects for the environment look increasingly grim.
It is not just that a no deal Brexit now seems probable, though that is bad enough. Crashing out of the EU carries great dangers for air pollution and loss of countryside as lorries queue around our major ports. Its impact on farming could be devastating. There are risks for chemical safety, nature protection, climate action and much else. No deal will make the country poorer and sap political energy when we will need money and focus to deal with the rather bigger, existential crisis of climate and ecological breakdown.
I could go on, but all this is well known. Almost every economist, industry body and trade union is warning against a no deal Brexit. It risks much but resolves nothing. Worse, this week it became clearer than ever that, deal or no deal, Brexit could be used to undermine UK environmental protections.
The prime minister’s letter to Donald Tusk describes the Withdrawal Agreement backstop as “inconsistent with the UK’s desired final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship with the EU”. Post-Brexit, he says, it must be possible for the UK’s laws and regulations to “diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.”
This is a highly significant departure from the previous government’s position. The Withdrawal Agreement (pages 355-359) aims to ensure “non-regression” from current environmental laws and avoid a deregulatory race to the bottom. The Political Declaration (paragraph 79) states that the EU-UK future relationship should build on the level playing field arrangements in the Withdrawal Agreement.
Environmentalists, of course, want more: not just non-regression, but “a principle of environmental progress”; not merely a future economic partnership between the UK and EU, but an environmental partnership. It now seems, however, that we are going to get much less.
Who’s to judge what is ‘world class’?
True, the prime minister’s letter says “we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards”, but who is to judge what is world class? Donald Trump is also committed to world class environmental standards. He demonstrated this commitment early in August by dismantling the US’s pioneering Endangered Species Act.
The question for the government is why, if it wants high standards, will it not commit, as a minimum, to the standards the UK has co-created over the last 40 years? EU standards are generally world-leading. Rejecting them raises big concerns about the government’s intentions. Today’s Daily Telegraph screams, “30 days to ditch the backstop”. It could just as well read, “30 days to ditch EU standards and protections that have helped clean UK beaches and rivers, protect habitats and tackle climate change”.
I do not know if the government really intends to lower standards. I expect there is a debate to be had. Zac Goldsmith says it has “repeatedly stated” that they will not be weakened. That is good to hear, but it is not the whole story. The prime minister has said very little about the environment, beyond exuding a sense that he is in favour. The chancellor’s priorities do not include tackling the environment emergency. And some in government, whether ministers or special advisers plucked from fundamentalist free market think tanks, seem to be itching for deregulation.
The government must show that it recognises the scale of the environmental challenge and is ready to take the necessary action.
Commitments are needed now
It should renew the promise of an ambitious Environment Act, to be introduced as soon as possible. This must ensure that the Office for Environmental Protection is powerful, well-resourced and independent. It must also introduce the European environmental principles in full into domestic law, including the precautionary principle.
On climate change, it should set out a costed plan for achieving the fourth and fifth carbon budgets and, in the longer term, net zero by 2050. This is essential for the UK’s credibility as hosts of the 2020 UN climate conference. The plan requires action from every department, not least the transport and communities departments.
And it should set out a trade policy. The lack of a clear trade policy is a rather big omission more than three years after the referendum.
We need clear commitments. Rhetoric is not enough. So far, the new government’s most significant environmental announcement, buried in the arcana of the backstop, is that it intends to ditch EU standards and go its own way. What assurance can it give that it really intends to raise standards and is willing to be held to account for doing so?