Uncertainty filled the air like thick fog on 24 June, 2016 as the result of the EU referendum began to sink in. Green Alliance, along with other environmental organisations, had done its homework, scoping out the likely implications of different scenarios: an overwhelming vote to leave or remain, or a close call either way. That day, we found ourselves dealing with the scenario that would leave us with the greatest deal of work to do: the country had voted to leave, putting the estimated four-fifths of the UK’s environmental protections that stem from EU law into question.
The task ahead of us felt enormous, unprecedented, and rather vague. Clearly we needed to secure a good outcome for the environment at the end of whatever policy processes and politics the referendum vote would give rise to, but at that moment we had very little idea of what those might be. The country had voted to leave, no doubt about that, but where it wanted to get to was less obvious. And the prime minister had resigned, leaving the ship of state somewhat captainless just as it began pulling away from the EU fleet.
Six months on, and the environmental outlook is not quite so fog-filled or bleak. While the days have gradually shortened towards the winter solstice, chinks of light have crept in to illuminate the environmental policy picture, which are welcome even if all they do is display in greater detail what a complex picture it is.
There is (slightly) more clarity on timetable and process
The new prime minister’s speech to the Conservative party conference brought some much-needed clarity on timetable and process. Article 50 would be invoked by the end of March, and there would be a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to transpose EU law into domestic legislation, to come into effect once the UK leaves. From an environmental perspective at least, that’s not as simple as it sounds: many policies are monitored and enforced by EU institutions, such as the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which helps companies comply with regulations covering thousands of chemicals. Even if we replicate EU standards, we would have to find a way of either replacing those functions and the expertise that goes with them, or agreeing an ongoing relationship with bodies like the ECHA. Andrea Leadsom, secretary of state at Defra, has herself acknowledged that only two-thirds or three-quarters of legislation could be transposed in a “relatively straightforward” way.
These very significant complications aside, it has been reassuring that government ministers have started to address our major concern that environmental standards could be watered down after the UK leaves the EU. In response to questions from MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee, Defra minister Therese Coffey said, “the government is committed to leaving the environment in a better state than we inherited it, so from my perspective, being in or out of the EU doesn’t change that ambition.” Similarly, Brexit minister Robin Walker said in relation to cooperation on environmental issues, “I think there’s nothing to stop us continuing to work multilaterally as a country with all sorts of partnerships … We will continue to have important relationships with our European neighbours and a relationship between the UK and the EU.”
The Greener UK coalition is gaining momentum
Meanwhile, Brexit is proving a galvanising force for the environmental community. We emerged from the fog of June 2016 with a new coalition, Greener UK, which launched publicly two weeks ago. By then, 145 MPs had signed our Pledge for the Environment; that number has since risen to 172 MPs (and counting) – more than a quarter of the House of Commons. And our overall goal is shared by most of the British public: polling shows that 80 per cent of the public think that environmental protection should be as strong or stronger when we leave the EU.
We will be watching the negotiations, the ‘Great Repeal Bill’, and any subsequent legislation very carefully to make sure they don’t weaken current environmental protections. If the government decides not to maintain existing relationships with regulatory agencies such as the ECHA, we will work to ensure that domestic institutions are appropriately empowered to fill the gaps that could open up. These could include essential functions such as monitoring, enforcement, arbitration, and access to justice.
But we must go further than maintaining existing protections, because it’s not as if the environment is in rude health at the moment. Current environmental governance is not good enough. The government recognises this: in September, Leadsom said, “it is my ambition and it’s my department’s vision to be the first generation to leave our environment better than we found it since the industrial revolution.” Brexit could be an opportunity to push our ambitions beyond where the EU has taken us, recognising that restoring nature and reducing pollution are essential to national prosperity in the 21st century. Our environmental governance could become something of which we are nationally proud. Our high standards could be a cornerstone of overseas diplomacy, building on the FCO’s climate diplomacy successes in recent years, rather than letting them falter.
As we prepare to leave 2016 behind us, we rest on a foundation of relatively comforting words on the environment from those tasked with bringing Brexit about. In 2017, those words need to lead to actions. The first test will be early in the new year, when Theresa May has promised to announce more details about the Article 50 negotiations. By now, May is alone among key ministers in not having said anything about what Brexit means for the environment, even though it is one of the most affected areas of policy. She needs to make clear that the health of our environment is a priority in the negotiations, and that enhanced environmental cooperation will be an essential pillar of our future relationships with the EU and other countries. The second test will be the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ – the government’s handling of the fiendishly complicated task of transposing not just legislation, but the other trappings of environmental governance mentioned above.
Six months on from the referendum, there’s a lot of work for environmentalists to do. At Greener UK, we’re rolling up our sleeves.