Under our new government, environmental progress has ground to a halt

brick wall squareThis blog was first posted on Business Green. 

The new government’s energy is devoted either to preparing for – even willing on – a disastrous no deal Brexit or to election planning. It has little left for environmental ambition and its record compares badly with that of Theresa May’s government in the weeks following the 2017 election. Ministers have been relatively silent and inaccessible. They are not responsible for the fact that key Bills have stalled, but they have given little indication that they will fight to secure major improvements to environment and farming policy.

On climate change, the government says it is committed to net zero, but the Chancellor’s Spending Round, with its £1.1bn investment in the roads programme, will make it harder to achieve. Already I feel almost nostalgic for the May years.

It is not all bad news and Ministers deserve congratulation for some positive announcements, particularly on international marine conservation. But they cannot obscure the fact that environmental progress has largely stalled. Worse, the government seems intent on throwing it into reverse.

By far, its biggest environmental (or anti-environmental) policy announcement was the decision to ditch the UK’s commitment to respect EU standards, the so called ‘non-regression’ provisions of the draft Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.

The UK has been centrally involved in shaping these standards for over 40 years. They have played a major role in improving our environment (cleaner beaches, purer water etc). They give hope that it can be improved further (e.g. through legal action to enforce EU provisions on air quality). And they have helped to reduce carbon emissions. Business is used to them and knows that they are essential for free and frictionless trade with our biggest and closest market, the European Union. Divergence is clearly not a prerequisite of leaving the EU. So why do it?

In his letter to Donald Tusk announcing the change in policy, Boris Johnson said the right to diverge was “the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy”. This is not true: total independence (as if that could exist in the modern world) has become central to the Brexiteers’ narrative as they have pushed for the hardest of hard Brexits, but staying in the single market or some sort of customs union is perfectly compatible with leaving the EU (as Nigel Farage once acknowledged). However, diverging from EU standards is necessary if your vision for the UK is of a buccaneering, low regulation, low tax country prioritising free trade over high standards. This is the vision of ultra-free market think tanks such as the Institute for Economic Affairs and it appears now to be shared by the government.

Of course, the Prime Minister does not own the vision of a low standards Britain. Rather, he says the UK will “remain committed to world class environment, product and labour standards”. But if we leave the EU on acrimonious terms, withholding the previously agreed £39bn divorce settlement, and find ourselves facing new tariff and non-tariff barriers, how strong is this commitment likely to be? Even if there were not powerful voices within government itching for deregulation, the economic imperative would be to pivot away from high EU standards towards the weaker standards of the US.

Everyone wants ‘world class’ environmental standards, just as they want fairness, democracy and all other good things. Donald Trump recently said his said his administration had “made it a top priority to ensure that America has among the very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet”. He also said that “every single one of the signatories to the Paris Climate Accord lags behind America in overall emissions reductions. Who would think that is possible?” To which the only answer is, no one except Donald Trump. Rhetoric is not enough to guarantee environmental standards.

Nor, where they exist, are good intentions. The EU has not raised standards just because its leaders mean well. Enforcement by the European Court has been essential and is justified by the need to ensure a level playing field within the trading block. Once the UK cuts itself from the EU – which seems to be the intention – who is to stop the progressive lowering of standards?

Environmentalists worked well with the last government. Some argued that we should have been more oppositional but, by and large, we were dealing with Ministers who wanted to do the right thing and we made progress. That progress has now stopped. Politics has taken a nasty turn, with good, environmentally-minded Conservative MPs purged from their party. Some of Boris Johnson’s ministerial and special adviser appointments are alarming. I hope I am wrong, but it seems likely we will have a fight on our hands. Fortunately, we have the public on our side.

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