From spending on flood defences to concerns about air quality, from banning microbeads to recycling coffee cups, environmental issues are rarely out of the news or political debate.
The Conservative manifesto of 2015 committed to “ensuring we are the first generation to leave the natural environment of England in a better state than we found it”, but the 2015 Government was criticised for budget cuts to its environment Department and delays to flagship projects like its 25-year environment plan. Brexit adds a substantial layer of EU-driven environmental policy and legislation which needs to be untangled and integrated with emerging domestic approaches.
The new Parliament will have an opportunity to shape a national approach to UK environmental policy for generations to come. But this will come with some key questions and challenges.
… Heading into the Brexit negotiations
Many commentators attribute environmental improvements in the UK to its membership of the EU, referencing the UK’s reputation as the “dirty man of Europe” when it first joined. Others argue that the UK could well have achieved these improvements as a sovereign nation.
Either way, most UK environmental legislation and policy is currently driven by the EU and subject to EU enforcement mechanisms. For example, the Government has identified around 1,100 pieces of EU legislation ‘owned’ by Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), including those related to water and air pollution, flooding, habitats and nature protection, waste and recycling. What’s more, nearly half of Defra’s spending on agricultural and environmental work came from EU sources in recent years. This is only a snapshot of the full picture – many of the Defra-owned policy areas, as well as wider environmental issues such as climate change, emissions trading and environmental impact assessments, sit across multiple government departments.
Defra has been developing a comprehensive 25-year plan for the environment to ensure that the environment is maintained and improved as well as becoming systematically valued and integrated into wider decisions across different sectors. The plan was expected to set out the direction of the Government’s environmental policy post-Brexit, but had not been published before the election.
The previous Government stated that it would leave the single market and through the Great Repeal Bill convert all existing EU law into domestic law “wherever practical”. The general purpose of the Great Repeal Bill was welcomed by environmental groups such as the RSPB.
However, some commentators raised concerns that the environment wasn’t one of the Prime Minister’s Brexit negotiating priorities. In addition, the European Parliament’s resolution on Brexit negotiations calls on EU negotiators to ensure that any future trade agreement is subject to continued UK adherence to international environmental obligations and EU environment policies.
Questions for the next Parliament
Whatever the approach of the next Government, Brexit poses a unique set of risks, challenges and opportunities for the next Parliament to consider. For example:
Risks that environmental standards could be lowered or transposed EU environmental laws could quickly become outdated (‘zombie legislation’). Some argue that EU enforcement mechanisms provide a strong incentive to take action on environmental issues. Defra itself has acknowledged that roughly a third of EU environmental legislation cannot be simply transposed onto the UK statute book due to a number of technical challenges concerning enforcement and accountability. How will the next Government choose to enforce environmental laws— through the existing powers of the High Court or perhaps with a new environmental court? How will legislation be kept up-to-date, and will the next Government seek to introduce a new Environment Act?
Challenges around environmental policy and devolution. Will the next Government want to create a common UK environmental framework and how would this work? Alternatively, how would an increasingly diverse approach to environmental policy ensure a coherent approach to environmental protection across the UK?
Opportunities to develop a bespoke UK approach to environmental protection. There have been calls to embrace innovation and combine best practice from the EU to develop new UK environmental policies. How will the next Government set its environmental priorities and provide the necessary funding? Will it publish a comprehensive 25-year environment plan?
Considerable uncertainty still remains. So, while it is clear Brexit will have an impact on environmental policy in the UK, no one can yet foresee precisely how.
This article is part of Key Issues 2017 – a series of briefings on the topics that will take centre stage in UK and international politics in the new Parliament.
Devolution of environmental policy
While there is a common EU framework, most environmental policy in the UK is devolved. Each Administration has its own approaches which are broadly similar in theme, but diverge in terms of specific targets and regulation.
What are the UK’s international environmental obligations?
The UK has ratified almost 40 international environmental treaties, many of which are reflected in EU law, including: the Ramsar Convention on the conservation and wise use of all wetlands; the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats; and the Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.