The United Nations has issued a stark warning regarding Britain’s ability to meet its environmental commitments post-Brexit. The United Kingdom currently enjoys a good reputation among industrialised nations for its commitment to green technologies. Unfortunately, barring a major pivot in the current talks with the EU, it seems unlikely that Britain will be able to maintain that prestige beyond Brexit.
Erik Solheim, the executive director of the UN’s environment programme, has called upon Michael Gove, the environment secretary, to deliver on his promise of a “green Brexit”. As it stands, the UK’s departure from the EU could pose a significant setback to its environmental goals.
Britain is home to a number of individual businesses and industrial sectors that have been instrumental in helping Britain earn the green reputation it currently has. There are a number of complex reasons that individual industries may well struggle to meet their commitments after Brexit, but the biggest concern is regulatory changes.
Like many advanced economies, Britain is home to a number of innovative green technologies and practices. In addition to comprehensive EU regulations, there is a range of grants and subsidies available for businesses who go the extra mile in enhancing their green credentials. Outside of the EU, the existence of many of these programs is in doubt.
One example of how innovative businesses in Britain are enhancing their environmental credentials is through companies such as Smart-Space, who offer bespoke made to order steel buildings.
The construction industry is one that historically has contributed significantly to environmental damage. While we are much better at managing this now, we are still some way from all construction being this green. However, the manufacture of steel buildings is actually a much greener process than most people realise.
Whether the structures are designed to be temporary buildings or something more permanent, steel buildings are one of the greenest ways of erecting new structures. While these buildings aren’t suitable everywhere, they are an important indicator of how seriously British businesses take their environmental concerns and obligations. Looking at the range of steel buildings that Smart Space operate gives you an idea of how versatile and widely deployable this technology is. See here, where they unveiled a school steel sports hall.
Prior to Brexit, the UK was heading down a much more certain path as far as making its industries greener. Now, things seem much less certain. It is feared that without the tough but fair EU environmental regulations, it will be corporate interests that dominate the debate around which regulations to keep, and which to ditch. It’s also feared that losing the current regulatory framework could ultimately incentivise businesses to take environmentally harmful shortcuts and cost-saving measures.
The Current Proposals
The government’s current proposals have been described as “toothless” by campaigners, and they have done nothing to alleviate concerns at the UN. Under the current proposals, the post-Brexit environmental watchdog would not be able to take legal action against the government over breaches of their own regulations.
Currently, our government is answerable to the European Court of Justice. This court has the power to force ministers to act and to sanction the government for non-compliance. Campaigners note that the current proposals would leave us with far weaker environmental protections than the United States.
Speaking with The Observer newspaper, Solheim reiterated how important it was for the UK to continue to take its environmental obligations seriously. Regardless of the US pull-out from the Paris Climate Accords, the rest of the world is still eager to adhere to their targets and meet their goals. As a species, we are battling to limit temperature rises over the next century, and we are running out of time to act.
Solheim also referred to the promises of Michael Grove that there would be no reduction in British environmental standards following our departure from the EU. However, looking at the current proposals, it seems that such reductions in standards are inevitable. In fact, some of those most vocally championing Brexit have also been very clear about their distaste for any environmental rules which they feel hamstring businesses.
Despite the apparently strong commitment of Gove, however, the government currently seems largely apathetic to the issue. Perhaps, in the swirling vortex of chaos that is the Brexit negotiations, it is understandable that some issues are being given a higher priority than others. But with time rapidly running out, and no solid plans in place for Britain’s environmental future, things are not looking nearly as hopeful as Michael Gove’s promises.
There have been doubts from the opposition benches ever since Gove made his first remarks on the subject. Unfortunately, Labour has proven equally ineffective at following through on their stated intentions, in the absence of any tangible Brexit strategy, the lack of environmental plans doesn’t stand out much, but it does raise the question of just who is going to fight for this issue.
There is no indication that the British public support widespread rollbacks of their environmental standards and protections. In fact, if either party was to suggest relaxing environmental protections, they would likely face quite a backlash from their supporters.
While Solheim has been characteristically diplomatic about the whole thing, his intervention highlights the seriousness with which the EU is taking this issue. He closed his speech by reiterating the importance of ensuring that standards are maintained or improved, but not diminished, following Brexit.
There is currently a battle underway within Whitehall for the soul of the Brexit negotiations. It is not just on environmental regulations that there are competing views and differing interests. Gove has so far advocated strongly in favour of taking all of the environmental powers currently exercised by the European Commission, instead of giving those powers to a new environmental watchdog. The Treasury has been reluctant to support the plans, fearing that they will have too big an impact on economic growth post-Brexit.
The government has faced a number of legislative defeats in the Lords over their Brexit bill. Senior Tories are reportedly still very unhappy about the lack of attention being paid to environmental concerns. One of the Lords’ rebellions was aimed at forcing the government to keep all environmental protection regulations in place.
All of this comes not long after the ECJ intervened due to excessive air pollution levels in Britain. The UK was one of five nations who was referred to the court for consistent breaches of air pollution level limits. While the ECJ can impose large fines on member states who fail to meet their obligations, the proposed British environmental watchdog would only be able to issue advisory notices; they would not have any legal recourse against the government.
Mary Creagh is a Labour MP and is also the Labour chair of the Common environmental audit committee. She has been one of the most vocal in voicing her belief that any environment watchdog needs to have real legislative power.
Will We Change Course?
Solheim pointed to the common standards, regulations, and laws that are in place across the EU, and the successes the continent has had in meeting environmental targets under them, as an example of how close cooperation benefits us all. However, he also conceded that this was a matter that will ultimately have to be settled in the British Parliament. These issues need to be decided between Downing Street and the people. Unfortunately, there seems to have been little effort made to engage the public so far.
Solheim reiterated his calls for the UK and the EU to work closely together to ensure that Britain can continue to meet its green obligations after Brexit. With politics in the United States in such a precarious position, and with the interests of traditional allies taking a back seat to Putin’s, it is the EU and China who will have to lead the world in being more ecologically-friendly.
His speech also sounded some hopeful notes. For example, he pointed to the UK’s history of multiculturalism as contributing to the nation’s global perspective. Solheim mentioned London and Paris as being unique in the perspective they offer of the rest of the world. And again, he reiterated how important it is that both sides work together and not against one another.
Gove has continued to insist that there will be no weakening of our environmental legislation after Brexit, but this is looking like an increasingly impossible goal. Certainly, the fact that there is still so much disagreement within Britain itself as to what form any new environmental watchdog should take only further highlights the difficulties ahead.
Given how much progress Britain has made over the last 50 years in improving its ecological credentials, it would be a great shame to see the country backslide. Unfortunately, outside the EU, we will be without our most potent weapon in ensuring that our government complies with their own environmental goals. For those who want to be involved in limiting any post-Brexit environmental damage, the time to act is now!