Britain after Brexit: Gone, but not to be forgotten

So, after years of rancorous argument, the UK slipped out of the EU at the end of January with hardly a murmur. In London, a small number of hardcore Brexiteers celebrated in Parliament Square. In Scotland, which voted strongly Remain, activists held candlelight vigils - as they did in Brussels where the Union Jack was lowered. Most British citizens were relieved that the country can finally move on; for a small majority it is with sadness; and, for most, it is with considerable anxiety about where the country is heading.

The UK’s future path was mapped out by the Prime Minister in a speech immediately following its departure. The UK wants a free-trade agreement similar to Canada’s and there will be “no need” to accept EU rules including explicitly on the environment. In contrast, Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, said the EU was ready to offer an "ambitious" trade deal but was clear that this requires “specific and effective guarantees to ensure a level playing field”. The two visions are difficult to reconcile, so it is improbable there will be a comprehensive trade-agreement this year or widespread regulatory alignment. Instead the UK will seek mutual recognition in those areas it wants to, leaving open the option to take its own path in the future. Britain will not become another Norway, a taker of EU rules. The large government majority guarantees Prime Minister Johnston will remain both in Downing Street and in charge whatever the outcome of the negotiations - luxuries his predecessor didn’t enjoy.

However, the government is unlikely to systematically dismantle EU environmental rules. A quarter of Britons say the environment is one of the three most important issues facing the country in 2019 - only Brexit and health ranked higher. Environmental rhetoric is powerful, and the government says it wants the UK to have the “most ambitious environmental programme of any country on Earth”. But its attitude to environmental regulation is schizophrenic; in some areas it is forging ahead while in others it is seemingly ambivalent to environmental crises.

To replace EU environmental regulations, a new “ground-breaking” Environment Bill has been published to integrate environmental principles in law. There are eye-catching elements: a framework of ambitious targets (on the natural environment and people's enjoyment of it); a requirement that new buildings enhance biodiversity; and an independent regulator - the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) - to monitor and enforce compliance. But the detailed legislation does not match the aspirations. The way the Bill integrates environmental regulations into law is much weaker than the treaties governing EU rules and does not give them legal status. The government says the OEP will take a proportionate approach to managing compliance issues - but the hoops it must jump through before ultimately taking the government to court are as protracted as Commission infringement procedures! T&E previously described the OEP as an “undernourished, toothless watchdog.” 

The intention of the Bill that the UK should comply with the WHO guidelines for fine particles is more ambitious than current EU rules - but there is no date for compliance, rendering the commitment meaningless. More worryingly, although the government has said there will be no roll-back of environmental standards in the future, there isn’t a non-regression clause in the Bill. So in the future, ministers could weaken standards and have no obligation to match future tougher EU standards brought forward through the European Green Deal. This includes an aspiration for “zero pollution” far beyond anything being considered in the UK.

But although the Environment Bill is lacking in many areas, the UK remains a leader in averting a climate disaster. It has already announced a commitment to net-zero emissions in 2050 and a Cabinet Committee chaired by the Prime Minister to lead the work (though it has not actually met). Since 2008 it has had legally binding CO2 targets - but it is also on track to miss targets for 2023-2027 and 2028-2032. Glasgow will host the crucial COP talks at the end of 2020. The decision to sack the independent president of the summit overshadowed the launch, and a lack of progress threatens to derail securing the successful outcome the world needs.

In response to the goal of 2050 net-zero, the Department for Transport is developing a comprehensive decarbonisation plan that will draw strongly on the government election promise for a transport revolution. Improving rail and bus connections and more funding for local transport and cycling have all been promised. It has already announced its intention to strengthen and bring forward plans to phase out cars and vans with engines by 2035 at the latest. Strikingly the ban on vehicles with engines will apply to both “self-charging” and “plug-in” hybrid cars - only zero-emission tailpipe vehicles will be allowed. The 2035 target will require the UK to roll out electric cars substantially quicker than the rest of Europe. By 2030 the UK would need to be selling more than two-thirds zero-emission cars and vans - double the level estimated for the EU as a whole. In doing this the government hopes to make the UK a centre for manufacturing (and recycling) of EVs and batteries. The Department for Transport is considering a zero-emission vehicle mandate to replace the EU’s car CO2 regulations to ensure manufacturers deliver a rapid increase in sales and will be developing detailed proposals this year.

T&E established a presence in the UK in 2019 to complement the work of its four members and intends to expand in 2020. There will be opportunities to drive environmental improvements much faster than the EU is willing and to provide a model for what is possible in the Union. In other areas the UK may lag behind the EU and T&E must challenge the government to match the EU’s ambition. The UK is gone but it should not be forgotten as it is likely to remain as influential in setting environmental rules outside of the EU as it was as a member. We will need cooperation to solve common challenges like climate change and transboundary air pollution. But this must be achieved as the UK strives to demonstrate its independance and that it was right to Leave; whilst the EU tries to show it wasn’t!

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About the author

Greg Archer's picture

Director, UK