What does Brexit mean for the Environment? | Daniel Zeichner MP

We live in a very divided country. I voted to remain in the EU, as did the majority of the people in Cambridge I represent. I will always vote against any attempt to take us out of the EU in Parliament – to reflect the views of my constituents as well as my own conscience. Some criticise, saying that people like me refuse to accept the result. I recognise the result, but that doesn’t make me agree with it, nor will it stop me and many others doing everything in our power to reverse it, and build a better, more positive relationship with our neighbours in Europe. In the months leading up to the referendum, environmental issues rarely got a mention, but it is the UK’s environmental legislation that is perhaps most intricately intertwined with the EU because so much originated at EU level. Indeed the two have developed mutually and interdependently over the last few decades, an example of the success of our relationships.

In some areas of environmental reform the UK has been the trailblazer, while in others we have lagged behind. Britain under Labour led the way when we became the first Government to pass a Climate Change Act, yet on European air quality legislation the UK Government has continually dragged its heels. It has taken pressure from other member states and intra-continental dialogue and cooperation – not to mention legal action – to get us to budge and make moves to clean up our country’s air.

The legal status of much of our environmental legislation post-Brexit is complicated. Upon exiting the EU many EU environmental directives may no longer apply to the UK should the Government decide to remove them from UK law. These include the Air Quality Directives, which set legal limits for damaging air pollutants the UK is currently struggling to meet; and the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, which the Commission has called the “cornerstone of Europe’s nature conservation policy.” EU directives have also protected rare wildlife and have cleaned up our beaches and rivers, and the European Commission has restricted the use of certain insecticides that harm bees. Brexit creates a worrying amount of wiggle room for the relaxation of important environmental standards and targets, and its impact will ultimately depend on whether the UK decides to lower, raise, or maintain current requirements.

It all comes down to whether or not you trust the UK Government to pass domestic legislation that is as strong and effective as the EU legislation currently in place, and to pursue a political agenda that protects our environment. The outlook isn’t good. The appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Secretary of State at DEFRA hardly inspires confidence. A worrying precedent has been the Government’s failure to meet existing environmental protections and emissions targets. Government energy policies have been hostile to the low-carbon sector. In a short space of time, the Government closed the renewables obligation for onshore wind; they announced the removal of the Climate Change Levy exemption for renewable electricity; they scrapped zero carbon homes; and they announced the cancellation of the £1bn carbon capture storage competition. These about-turns have sent a negative signal to investors: in the EY Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index, the UK has slipped from 8th place in June 2015 to 11th place in September 2015 – the first time since the index was established in 2003 that the UK has been placed outside the top 10. We’ve recently dropped still further – to 13th.  Furthermore, the Government has offered scant reassurance since the referendum vote. Andrea Leadsom has said, “It is absolutely clear that it is business as usual while we remain members of the EU”, but questions about what happens afterwards have been dodged. We are standing on the edge of an environmental policy precipice. 

While the publication of the Fifth Carbon Budget was welcome, it barely softened the blow we all felt at the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The removal of the words ‘climate change’ from the name of a Government department may seem trivial, but it is a symbolic demotion of status and significance – climate change got bumped. In my view, with one fell swoop the Tories axed not only a Department, but finally gave up on their bizarre claim to be the ‘greenest government ever’. It was never true, but it’s clear that for Theresa May, it isn’t even an aspiration.

That is why it is so important for Labour to keep pressing the Government to clean up our air, to protect our environment and to tackle climate change. The Paris Agreement is yet to be ratified – we should do so at the first opportunity to underline our country’s commitment to lowering carbon emissions. A new Clean Air Act is a necessity, and we need a Labour Government with the same determination as the new Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to clean up our country again. We don’t know yet what Britain will look like when we are an island once more. All I know is that we need environmental laws in place that are every bit as robust – if not more robust – than those we are recklessly leaving behind. 

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