Part of the Public Sector News Network

How do we ensure the environment doesn’t fall victim to Brexit?

It is widely recognised that the environment has been a big beneficiary of the UK’s membership of the European Union. In an era of global climate change, how do we ensure that the environment does not fall victim to Brexit?

David Dale, ADEPT Policy Officer, sets out the Association’s view of how environmental protection could work post-Brexit.

When we joined the EU in 1973 we were known as the ‘dirty man of Europe’ having problems with bathing water quality, air pollution and weaker nature conservation laws. Since then membership of the EU has significantly benefitted our environment and there are widespread concerns that leaving, particularly without a deal, could undermine current protections.

The government’s formal position is that the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 transposes all existing EU environmental law into UK law and therefore, existing legislation will continue to operate.

Defra is also saying, however, that they are considering what interim measures may be necessary should there be a no deal scenario after 12th April – the deadline for Theresa May to get her deal through Parliament – but there has been no official confirmation of what these gaps might be.

What we do know is that with the Draft Environment Bill yet to be timetabled, it will be some time before the proposed environmental watchdog, the Office of Environmental Protection (OEP) is up and running.

In the meantime, we understand that Defra has appointed an official to record breaches of environmental law until the Bill is enacted and the OEP is established.We expect a public announcement about this appointment shortly.

Over the course of the last few months, the stakes on climate change have ratcheted up significantly. The recent report published by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated very clearly that in its view, we have just 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5C. This is truly sobering.

In the wake of this report and TV programmes like Blue Planet, protest groups such as Extinction Rebellion in the UK and the global student strikes have shown that public concern, especially amongst the young, is growing fast. If we really are to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it, we need to act far more radically.

For ADEPT, the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, while hugely important, has to go further. We cannot just set out what we intend to do, we have to make it very clear what we will do and how.

Non-regression of the environment, environmental principles and legislation need to be enshrined in the forthcoming Environment Bill and, critically, in how the Office of Environmental Protection is set up.

As the National Infrastructure Commission Chair has also said, the environment and climate proofing must be embedded in decision-making about the country’s strategic transport and infrastructure.

ADEPT believes that we have to put environmental protection on a much firmer legislative footing. We cannot leave it to the protest lobby to fight development on a case-by-case basis. We have to move forward proactively.

ADEPT does not believe that our current system of governance is sufficient to protect the environment and reverse climate change. If we truly want to be a world leader, we cannot just plug the gap left by leaving the EU. The OEP is vital, but to be effective, its role and remit need to be rigorous. It must include climate change and it must have teeth, able to hold Government to account.

For ADEPT, the independence of the OEP has to be a fundamental principle, starting with transparency in the selection process for the Chair and Board. It must be adequately resourced with the legal powers to fulfil its role – able to monitor and hold to account – with powers to institute legal proceedings, issue stop notices and impose significant fines.

Legally binding goals and targets will secure real progress, with the OEP itself held to account through an annual report. Defra has been working on the metrics and KPIs and ADEPT is keen to work with the Department to ensure that these are legally binding for government and its agencies alike.

Speaking to the EFRA Select Committee on 27th March, Environment Secretary told MPs that Defra’s non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) are under review and their responsibilities could be changed or merged after Brexit.

We support the aim of making sure that they are fit for purpose, but it is vital that agencies, including the Environment Agency and Natural England, emerge stronger and more effective.

We need to keep up with future European standards and not fall behind, so it must be part of the OEP’s work to enforce this. International co-operation is essential to tackling climate change, so that should also be part of the OEP’s remit.

The UK has submitted a bid to host the 2020 UN Climate Summit, COP26, which will see the full adoption of the Paris Agreement. If the UK is to meet the challenges ahead and fulfil its carbon reduction commitments, we need to ask ourselves a clear question and be honest about the answer: are we – nationally and locally – doing enough?

Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Julie Russ
Julie Russ
2 years ago

I agree with all you say in this article. I worked for Natural England for 10 years and I know that it does not have sufficient teeth. An Environment Act with legally binding goals and targets is essential, we cannot rely on people to do things voluntarily and the Act must be backed up by a strong OEP and strong and effective agencies. There are so many pressing environmental problems and, in particular, we have dithered over climate change for too long and are fast approaching the point of no return. I sincerely hope that we can get our act together in time to save our Blue Planet.