The Environment Bill: opportunity or illusion?

Ieva Asnina

Earlier this month, the Government introduced its “landmark” Environment Bill, a Bill that Defra claim will ensure the UK “maintains and improves” the country’s environmental protections post-Brexit (or as the Government’s official response to the Environmental Audit Committee said “as we leave the UK” – see page 3!).

Yet leaked reports unveiled by the Financial Times have cast a dark cloud over the Government’s ‘Green Brexit’ promises. The documents, reportedly seen by ministers, revealed that, alongside workers’ rights, the country’s environmental standards are at risk once the UK leaves the EU. If the reports are to be believed, critics argue this is a real cause for concern, not just for environmentalists but for the general public.

A tainted track record?

As a member state, standards on air, water, waste and wildlife are enforced by the EU and overseen by the European Courts of Justice (ECJ). Indeed, the Government has as recently as last year been taken to the ECJ and fined for failing to reach EU-set air pollution targets.

While, among other proposals, the Bill promises that the Government will reduce small particulate matter (though gives no indication as to how), some have pointed out that many parts of the UK breach World Health Organization standards for fine pollution airborne particles.

Though this is not a UK-only issue, some say that it’s hard to imagine how it will become a “world-leader” when the Government’s own track record shows it struggling to maintain many of the standards and targets already set at an EU and global level.

OEP: tenacious tiger or toothless lapdog?

To replace the ECJ, and aide its mission of becoming a world leader in environmental standards, the Government has proposed to establish an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP). The OEP would scrutinise the Government’s environmental policy and take enforcement action to uphold environmental law where necessary.

However, critics have highlighted that as the OEP would not be held accountable by Parliament, it would not be truly independent as the ECJ is. For example, if the Government is fined, this would simply lead to a transfer of funds from one part of the Government to another, therefore putting into question its accountability powers.

Indeed, Mary Creagh MP, the Environmental Audit Committee chair, recently said: “The only reason the Government have done anything on waste, landfill and air quality is because of the threat of EU fines.”

Furthermore, environmentalists have argued that as the targets will not be in place until October 2022, there will be no requirement to meet them until 2037, as the interim targets are not legally binding. But an environmental crisis is unfolding as we speak, and our planet does not have a spare 17 years to wait until the UK Government gets its Brexit ducks in a row.

The time is now

The Bill comes at a time when the environment is at the heart of public debate: from school children protests to Extinction Rebellion’s civil disobedience campaigns across London and beyond. For the Government, this means it is no longer just environmental think tanks and charities that are watching: there are more eyes and ears on the ground who will be alert to misguided promises and failed delivery.

As the Environment Bill moves through to Committee Stage, after passing the second reading earlier this week, critics have said that it is nothing more than an illusion of Government action. There is a lack of confidence that any of it will be delivered, especially in the light of the FT report. However, others have argued that the Bill has plenty of potential and opportunity to catapult the UK as a leader of environmental standards post-Brexit.

With a General Election approaching, it remains to be seen if this, or indeed the next Government, is serious about upholding, and going beyond, current standards. Either way, it will need to do more than make promises of action that people may or may not see in almost two decades. People need more than lip service, assurances and pledges. They need action, scrutiny, and legal commitments. Crucially, they, and the planet, need it now.

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