One of the supposed ‘benefits’ of Brexit was the ‘bonfire of Brussels red-tape‘ which was promised by libertarian Brexiteers. Two weeks into the administration of Liz Truss, the new government announced that they were planning to revoke 570 environmental laws which, in order to continue environmental protections, were rolled over from EU law after Brexit.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), of which I am proud to call myself a long-standing member, is not known for creating newspaper headlines. However, on 23 September the Society, along with other wild-life trusts, expressed its “anger” at the new government’s “unprecedented attack on nature.” The RSPB had sounded the alarm during the Conservative Party leadership contest, when both the final candidates, trying to outbid each other’s Brexit credentials, promised to ‘review’ remaining EU laws currently in English legislation. This, the RSPB said, would include, for example, the Habitats Regulations, which require that designated heathland sites, which are internationally important for rare wildlife, are protected.
Environmental protections are ‘leaky’
Brexiteers had claimed that leaving the EU would provide the UK with an opportunity to improve environmental protections, while retaining all the benefits of EU standards. However, in the legislative marathon which followed the Brexit vote, they refused to commit to maintaining environmental standards equivalent to those of the EU. The resulting Environment, Agriculture and Fisheries Acts, to name but three, have been described as “deliberately loose and leaky legislation” in contrast to the EU’s consistent framework of directives and its common agricultural and fisheries policies, which the UK had helped to negotiate in Brussels. Now there is confusion, for example, about whether elements of the post-Brexit environmental land management schemes (ELMS) to pay farmers for their stewardship of nature, will be replaced by an emphasis on national food security, supported by members of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group in Parliament.
In 2021, Greener UK, a coalition of 12 campaigning groups, carried out a post-Brexit analysis, which ranked policy areas such as 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. This showed there were no areas where protection was better and many areas where it was weaker. One clear example was air quality, where the government had been taken to court successfully under EU legislation even whilst the UK was an EU member. Despite promising action on air pollution, post-Brexit, Ministers have failed to agree to sign-up to World Health Organization air-quality standards.
Untreated sewage affects France too
Another obvious and disturbing aspect to the degradation of our environment as a result of Brexit is that large amounts of untreated sewage are being released into rivers and polluting Britain’s beaches. Southern Water has been one of the worst offenders, dumping sewage in large quantities along the coast in Sussex, Kent and Hampshire. This has led to complaints from French MEPs about pollution in the Channel, because of the UK reducing its water standards since Brexit. Despite Brexiteers denying this link, Andrew Adonis, (who amongst many other things is Chairman of the European Movement), drew attention to emergency guidance to water companies from the Environment Agency, issued in 2021, stating that: “You may not be able to comply with your permit if you cannot get the chemicals you use to treat the effluent you discharge because of the UK’s new relationship with the EU.”
Support for net zero is meaningless
It is however, on energy policy that this new government can potentially do most harm. The Johnson government, which paid lip-service to tackling climate change in the wake of COP26, had previously issued a British Energy Security Strategy in April 2022, which effectively ignored onshore wind and solar. These are the two most accessible and easily deployed renewable technologies which could have made a contribution to energy security this winter. The appointment by Truss of climate change-denier Jacob Rees Mogg, as Secretary for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, was greeted with horror by climate campaigners. His opinions on climate and energy include calls to extract “every last drop” of fossil resources from the North Sea.
It is perhaps not surprising therefore, that the speech on energy policy Truss made on 8 September (which was overshadowed by the death of the Queen) offered nothing on climate change. The element which got headlines was the cap on energy prices, although in subsequent comments it became clear the Prime Minister did not understand this was a cap on unit prices, so customers using more would pay more. The speech confirmed that the new government’s support for net zero by 2050 is a mere slogan, as measures included: a return to fracking for gas; issuing over 100 oil and gas licences in the North Sea; a “temporary” ending of “green levies” which support home insulation and renewable investment and a review of how net zero can be delivered whilst “maximising growth” to be led by Conservative MP Chris Skidmore. It is difficult to believe that any review commissioned by Jacob Rees Mogg will amount to anything other than green washing or worse, but perhaps I am unduly sceptical, I thought…
Then I learnt that there are plans for “investment zones” in National Parks. Is nothing sacred? In Truss’s Britain, apparently, nothing is.