Ministers are weakening the UK’s environmental protections in the aftermath of leaving the EU, an assessment of the government’s performance has found, despite promises of a green Brexit.
Legally binding commitments on key areas of pollution, nature restoration, waste and resource use have been put off to 2037, and the proposed new environmental watchdog will lack teeth, according to a report by Greener UK, a coalition of 12 campaigning groups.
Newly published environmental principles, which are supposed to prevent branches of government acting in ways that could harm the environment, will not apply to key departments such as defence and the Treasury. New regulations on chemicals are likely to be both costly and ineffective, while ministers have repeatedly refused to enshrine in law a commitment that future rules will be no weaker than those which applied when the UK was an EU member state.
Since before the referendum Brexit campaigners and government ministers have repeatedly said that the UK could enjoy better protections for its environment, wildlife and nature outside the EU. Michael Gove, as environment secretary from 2017 to 2019, led the calls, but they were echoed by Boris Johnson, as well as George Eustice, the current environment secretary, and others.
The Greener UK analysis ranked policy areas – including air quality, water, land use, fisheries and climate – with a traffic light system, where green represented an improvement on the rules under EU membership and red a weakening. Across the eight areas examined, four – water, land use, fisheries and climate – were ranked as amber, meaning they were about the same, while four – air quality, chemicals, nature, waste and resources – were red. None were ranked green.
Sarah Williams, head of the Greener UK coalition, said the government’s green rhetoric was not being matched by action. “We looked across policy areas and concluded that in no areas was the government doing better [than EU regulations] and in many it was weaker,” she said. “There are big question marks in many areas, such as enforcement.”
She highlighted the example of air quality, an issue on which ministers have been taken to court successfully several times under EU legislation. Ministers have promised to improve air pollution, but have not agreed to sign up to World Health Organization standards. “We don’t see why they won’t,” said Williams.
The environment bill has now been delayed several times, owing first to parliamentary wrangling over Brexit and then to the Covid-19 pandemic, but should come before parliament again in May. The bill represents the biggest shake-up of environment regulation in the UK in decades.
“The government should strengthen the bill, they have time to do so,” said Williams. She called for the Office of Environmental Protection, the new watchdog under the bill, to be made more independent and given broader powers to enforce regulations. She said legally binding targets, on pollution, waste and other issues, should be brought forward to 2022.
Other environmental campaigners joined the call. Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, one of the Greener UK coalition members, highlighted issues such as the government’s marine protected areas, where damaging fishing practices such as trawling and dredging are still permitted, as well as wildlife protections and water pollution.
He said: “We were solemnly promised that the UK would maintain and enhance our environmental standards after Brexit. The massive declines in the abundance of the natural world really matter – for wildlife, for people’s heath, and because wild places store carbon and help us to tackle the climate crisis – but the new standards do nothing to address this … It’s deeply frustrating because all this could and should be fixed – but it is not happening.”
Beccy Speight, chief executive of the RSPB, also part of Greener UK, said: “We are in a nature and climate emergency. The UK’s wildlife is in freefall and needs urgent action. What we were promised was a green Brexit with protections at least as strong if not stronger than those that applied before Brexit. What we have seen so far suggests a legacy of weakening many of the policies, regulations and legislation we urgently need.”
Eustice said: “We are working hard to create the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth – rewarding farmers for managing their land in a way which preserves it for future generations, championing sustainable fishing and setting legally binding targets to help restore nature and biodiversity. Our exit from the EU enables the UK to set our own world-leading legislation, delivering better environmental outcomes in an effective and efficient way and in line with our own regulatory systems – ensuring we protect and improve our precious environment for future generations.”
Meanwhile the head of the Environment Agency is warning that driving emissions down to “net zero” will not be enough on its own to properly combat the climate emergency. In a speech on Tuesday to a net zero roundtable organised by the Whitehall and Industry Group, Sir James Bevan will call on the public and private sectors to adopt “net zero plus” with action to reduce emissions, while adapting to the impacts of climate warming including more extreme weather and rising sea levels.
He will stress the importance of action that simultaneously cuts emissions and helps the country adapt to inevitable warming. These include measures such as the “keeping rivers cool” project in which the EA and other organisations are planting 300,000 trees along rivers to lock up carbon dioxide and keep the waterways shadier and cooler for salmon and trout.