What will happen to the environment after Brexit? That is the question which will arise – and hopefully be addressed – at a major summit in London on Thursday, attended by Environment Secretary Michael Gove.
Once upon a time, because of foot-dragging over the elimination of acid rain, Britain was dubbed ‘The Dirty Man of Europe’. But latterly its reputation has improved, most notably following the 2008 Climate Change Act.
For many environmentalists Brexit was a cause of significant concern. Would it mean – as leading leavers suggested – the watering down of protections derived from EU law? Would it mean that what they saw as the UK’s bright future outside the EU would be economic growth driven by environmental destruction? Thankfully, since the referendum – and especially since Mr Gove became Environment Secretary – the noises coming out of Whitehall have been much more encouraging.
In January, the Prime Minister announced the Government’s long awaited 25-Year Environment Plan and the following month Brexit Secretary David Davis said in a speech that standards were not under threat. Although big questions remain, including in relation to important principles such as the ’precautionary principle, there have Ministerial assurances that the EU Withdrawal Bill will retain the existing body of EU environmental law.
Michael Gove has made a number of speeches declaring his intent to act on, among other things, plastics, air pollution and farm policy. The Foreign Secretary has been a prominent campaigner on the illegal wildlife trade. The change in narrative is as striking as any seen during the last 40 years of environmental politics in the UK.
It signals that while Brexit could indeed mean the lowering of environmental standards, it could on the other hand present an opportunity for Britain to raise standards and become a global leader. This , however, will require more than reassuring speeches and announcements.
The actual recovery of wildlife populations, cleaning up the air we breathe, restoring the health of soils, and stopping the tide of plastic pollution in our oceans will require substantial action, including robust plans based on long-term ambition that is underpinned by law.
That is why Britain’s leading conservation and environment groups are calling for a new Environment Act to be passed. A new legal framework for the recovery of Nature would signal an act of global leadership and like the Climate Change Act that went before it help to make changes happen around the world. The new Act could set targets for the recovery of Nature and a timetable for the clean-up of air and water. It could set out, in law, the steps needed to achieve the aims of the 25 Year Environment Plan including the phase out of single use plastics. But why would Ministers wish to show such leadership?
One reason is the rapidly changing state of the world. Every week seems to bring a new scientific report further exposing the global ecological crisis. Public awareness of this means that politically the environment is no longer seen as a ‘nice to have’, but a fundamental determinant of economic and business success and resilience.
No one can make a profit on a dead planet and more and more economists and business leaders are seeking to reflect that simple truth in policy and practice. Having laws, policies and public spending choices to support that line of thinking will be vital not only for ecological outcomes but also economic ones. The advice that Ministers have been receiving as to the huge value to our society of healthy Nature and a flourishing environment should convince them of the need for action.
Then there is the wider world that is emerging around us. No longer can dirty industry or the destruction of nature be plausibly presented as ‘the price of progress’. Things have moved on. Today there is a rising global awareness of the need to protect the planet that sustains us, and countries that get that, and more importantly behave as if they do, will possess the kind of soft power that is truly of the 21st Century and the interconnected and interdependent world that we live in.
At the same time, leadership on the environment might be a means to promote national unity at a time of deep and unprecedented polarisation and division. Whether leave, remain, left, right or green, no one voted for a worse environment or quality of life and action to restore the health of our environment could be a rare source of unity.
During the Brexit debate (and since) there has been a very strong emphasis on trade and making new trade deals. Some environmentalists fear that the process of forging new global economic relations will place pressure on standards, to cut ‘red tape’ (and indeed ‘green tape’) as part of the process of making the UK an attractive partner for trade and investment. This more than anything else worries environmentalists as to the practical extent to which the Government can face in two directions at once. If it is truly facing in the direction of the greener future set out in recent speeches, then let’s have a new globally leading law in place.