Can sustainability and environmentalism survive Brexit Britain?

Sunday 29 October, 14:0015:30, ConservatoryState of the Nation


After decades in which issues of sustainability have moved from the fringes of political life into the mainstream, recent events suggest that the environment has slipped down the political agenda, particularly in the face of the New Populism. For example, the Climate Change Act, passed in 2008, created a legally enforceable target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 – the most ambitious target in the world. But this may have been a high point for green politics. In 2017, climate change and other sustainability issues were barely mentioned in the general election campaign. The Green Party won just 1.6 per cent of the vote, down from 3.8 per cent in 2015 and barely higher than in previous elections. Many high-profile Brexiteers have expressed scepticism about some of environmentalism’s sacred cows, while US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement seems to suggest a new climate for any discussions on resources, infrastructure and how a sustainable future might pan out in the future.

One of the biggest concerns for environmentalists is Brexit. For decades, much of UK environment regulation has been decided at EU level. There is now a target across the EU to recycle 50 per cent of household waste, which has driven ever-greater efforts to improve recycling rates across the country. The EU’s Ambient Air Quality Directive sets a series of targets to limit dangerous pollutants like nitrogen dioxide. The EU Renewable Energy Directive requires the UK to produce 15 per cent of its energy from renewable sources – not just electricity, but all energy, including that used in heating and transport – by 2020. As a consequence, coal use is at its lowest level since the Industrial Revolution. Britain’s beaches have been cleared up considerably since the Bathing Water Directive came into force in 1976, and EU legislation has driven major improvements in sewage and drinking water treatment.

Many campaigners and business leaders have expressed concern that environmental regulations, such as those in place to protect the health or our streams and rivers, will now be weakened, with some directives ceasing to apply once the UK leaves the EU, as will areas of law derived from judgements of the European Court of Justice. Some politicians have criticised EU regulations and directives as unnecessarily burdensome, suggesting that there is a desire to get rid of them or water them down. Critics have noted that even with EU rules in place, UK politicians have failed on targets for air quality, for example, and worry that without EU pressure, there would be even less incentive to raise standards.

But is the EU really so crucial to our environment? For example, Scotland and Wales have both legislated for stricter recycling targets than the EU sets. There is a cross-party consensus in support of the Climate Change Act and the failure of the Greens to win wider support may simply be because other parties continue to adopt a sustainability agenda. Even where EU regulations have been called into question, is it in fact desirable to get away from a Europe-wide, one-size-fits-all approach to the environment?

Can UK politicians be trusted to protect the environment after Brexit? Do critics of EU regulation have a point when they argue that such rules are often excessive? Would environmental laws have greater legitimacy and support if passed by elected politicians rather than by EU institutions?