✔ The UK was known as “the dirty man of Europe” before joining the EU
✔ The government has a 25-year plan to “strengthen and enhance” the environment
✔ But it has delayed passage of the bill that would set this plan into motion
The UK’s carbon emissions peaked in 1972 – the last year before the country joined the European Union (EU).
Since then, the EU has passed what eventually amounted to 80% of our environmental laws, including legislation that ensures we have clean drinking water, less pollution, and rivers that have begun to recover from acid rain.
Before and after the Brexit vote, environmental experts warned that leaving the union would mean abandoning EU regulations that have led to a smaller carbon footprint, less air pollution, cleaner rivers, and better wildlife conservation.
Some feared that the UK would return to an attitude that saw it labelled “the dirty man of Europe” during the 1970s, with pollution unregulated, acid rain falling, and widespread resistance to environmental measures.
Since Brexit, the UK has pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and to reduce emissions by 68% from 1990 levels by 2030, as part of the Paris Agreement.
And in 2018, the government launched its ‘25-Year Plan to Improve the Environment’, which pledged to “uphold environmental standards and go further”.
Former Prime Minister Theresa May vowed in the document that the UK would use Brexit “to strengthen and enhance the protections our countryside, rivers, coastline and wildlife habitats enjoy”.
The jury’s still out on these assertions, but we’re going to investigate them by laying out what will change, what commitments the government has made, and how political, legal, and environmental experts and activists see the post-Brexit future of our environment.
What’s on this page?
On 31 January 2021, the UK formally left the EU.
To ensure this didn’t leave an enormous hole in our legal system, all legislation that the UK entered into as an EU member state before 31 December 2020 has been copied over into our domestic laws.
However, some mechanisms for protecting the environment haven’t carried over, such as the European Commission – which is an independent regulator – and the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which holds EU governments to account through legal means.
The UK also no longer has to follow most EU targets on the environment. Thankfully, it has moved to create its own independent regulator and long-term plan, but there’s a catch: the bill which establishes both of these elements hasn’t yet passed parliament.
The Environment Bill
This government legislation is set to create a new, independent watchdog to replace the ECJ.
The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will receive and investigate complaints, holding the government and other public bodies to account for environmental infractions. It’s set to be chaired by experienced solicitor and regulator Dame Glenys Stacey.
The bill is also designed to introduce targets for successive governments to meet, in the form of the 25-Year Environment Plan, and ensure that the UK keeps crucial EU laws like the ‘polluter pays’ principle (which basically means that if you pollute, you clean it up).
However, the Environment Bill was first introduced to parliament in October 2019, more than 15 months before the eventual Brexit date – and it still hasn’t been passed.
We asked the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) why the Environment Bill – which was originally introduced to parliament in October 2019, and was meant to provide a post-Brexit framework – has been delayed for a third time.
In response, we were directed to a statement by Environment Minister Rebecca Pow, who said the government “remains fully committed to the Environment Bill”.
She added: “Carrying over the bill to the next session does not diminish our ambition for our environment in any way.”
Dame Glenys, Chair-designate of the OEP, said: “Whilst it is quite understandable, given the pandemic, carrying over our enabling legislation to the next session is extremely disappointing.”
Assuming it is eventually passed in roughly its current state, it will still contain flaws.
It has a distinct lack of concrete targets (aside from an aim to increase biodiversity by 10%, which is mind-bogglingly vague), meaning the current and future governments can fulfil their aims through limited gains.
When an administration is free to set its own targets on the environment, rather than an independent body, it has far too much power to act in its own interest, instead of that of the country – or, for that matter, the world.
The Wildlife and Countryside Link is among the organisations calling for more specific, legally binding environmental targets, while groups including environmental charity ClientEarth want assurances the OEP will be an independent, powerful enforcer.
What does the bill contain?
Long-term targets and accountability – of a sort
The government must work towards long-term goals on issues like air quality, and every year, the Secretary of State must lay out the progress made in these areas. However, the Secretary sets these targets themselves.
An Environmental Improvement Plan (EIP)
It does what it says on the tin: forces the government to have a plan to improve the environment. For now, this will be the 25-Year Environment Plan, but – worryingly – it can be changed by future governments.
The plan must be at least 15 years in scope, and will be reviewed at least every five years.
The government will have to report every year on its progress in implementing the EIP and how its actions have affected the environment. The OEP will also file their own report every year on the government’s progress.
A watered-down non-regression clause
This will ensure that environmental bills cannot revoke or reduce the protections offered by previous legislation – unless the Secretary of State decides they can be.
The Secretary can do this as long as they publish and present Parliament with “a statement explaining why”, which doesn’t inspire a massive amount of confidence.
The government’s environmental targets are laid out in its 151-page 25-Year Environment Plan, which presents 10 encouraging but vague goals:
- Clear air
- Clean and plentiful water
- Thriving plants and wildlife
- Reduced risk of harm from hazards like flooding and drought
- Use natural resources more sustainably and efficiently
- Enhance beauty, heritage, and engagement with the natural environment
- Mitigate and adapt to climate change
- Minimise waste
- Manage exposure to chemicals
- Enhance biosecurity
Let’s look at the key areas of the environment, and what plans the government has to improve the UK’s environment and fight the climate crisis.
The government’s plan champions its previous achievements but fails to specify any new, specific goals for the climate.
In all, it mentions climate change 49 times, usually while laying out non-specific targets, like: “We will lead the fight against climate change”. For comparison, it describes how the UK will show leadership 79 times.
There are plenty of encouraging goals that lack any framework, such as the statement that “by 2030 we want all of England’s soils to be managed sustainably” and their aim to ensure that “food is produced sustainably and profitably.”
But there are reasons to doubt the government’s commitment to these goals.
The 25-Year Environment Plan proudly references the UK’s plan to move away from coal by ending unabated coal-powered electricity by 2025 – but in January 2021, it approved a new coal mine in Cumbria.
Michael Gove, who was Environment Secretary at the time, wrote in his foreword that the UK must “protect the welfare of sentient animals”.
The plan explains that this involves “taking action to recover threatened, iconic, or economically important species of animals, plants and fungi”.
It also states that the government should act “where possible to prevent human-induced extinction or loss of known threatened species”, and should prioritise “reversing the loss of marine biodiversity and, where practicable, restoring it.”
These are wishy-washy commitments, but they at least provide a way in which the government can be held accountable if it fails to protect the UK’s animals.
Rivers and seas
The government aims to “eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042”, which would help the UK’s rivers and coastal waters and greatly reduce the number of animals which are killed by plastic every year – though it’s a shame the word “avoidable” is used.
The plan also includes the goal to “improve at least three-quarters of our waters to be close to their natural state as soon as is practicable”, which is – yet again – vague but encouraging.
However, there is at least one tangible target, which involves “ensuring that by 2021 the proportion of water bodies with enough water to support environmental standards increases from 82% to 90% for surface water bodies, and from 72% to 77% for groundwater bodies.”
The government also tasks water companies with reducing leakage “by at least an average of 15% by 2025.”
The government has promised to make the UK “richer in plants and wildlife”.
It wants to achieve this goal by “creating or restoring 500,000 hectares of wildlife-rich habitat” which lie outside current protected areas.
This goal will be helped by a commitment to “zero avoidable waste by 2050”, which is encouraging.
The government has promised to plant 180,000 hectares of trees in England by 2042.
At 1,600 trees per hectare, this would mean an extra 288 million trees. Part of this tranche of trees will be the new Northern Forest, which is set to cross the country from Liverpool to Hull, along the M62 corridor.
Since one tree saves 30kg of CO2 per year on average – and assuming that the government fulfils its pledge by steadily planting 11.52 million trees every year until 2042 – this would save the country 112 million tonnes of CO2, overall.
That’s a large number, though at current levels it would mean cutting the UK’s total carbon emissions by just 1.9% over a quarter of a century.
There should also be doubts about the government’s ability to achieve this goal.
The government promised ahead of the 2019 election to plant 30 million trees per year by 2025. The latest forestry statistics show that in the year to March 2020, 13,460 hectares were planted – about 21.5 million trees.
That would at least represent good progress, except that more than 80% of those trees were planted in Scotland, where planting is overseen by the Scottish government, not Downing Street.
The UK government also failed to reach even 30% of the 5,000 hectares it said it would plant in England during 2018 – which is well below the new target of more than 8,500 hectares per year.
If the government failed its new goal to the same degree, it would plant around 82 million trees and save 26.98 million tonnes of CO2 by 2042.
Importantly though, the government has also committed to “supporting zero deforestation supply chains” around the world, which could make a significant difference.
What does the future hold for our environment?
The government’s moves so far have been encouraging but short on concrete guarantees, and overshadowed by three delays – so far – to the passing of the Environment Bill.
We’ve asked legal experts, political specialists, and environmental campaigners what they think of the current situation, and how they think Brexit will end up affecting our environment.
The legal view
Tim Smith, a member of the Law Society planning and environmental law committee, said he was encouraged by the government’s environmental response to Brexit.
“One thing that’s clear from the announcements coming out of the government on going carbon-neutral, sustainability, and climate change is the intention to be a leader in environmental law across the world”, he explained.
“It doesn’t look like, freed from the shackles of EU environmental law, we’re about to roll back those laws. The signals are that we’re still going to do it; we’ll just do it in a British way.
“The signs are there that the UK government will continue with its environmental strategies. I am cautiously optimistic that the standards we’ve adhered to will be maintained.”
Smith added that the UK would remain part of certain treaties, like the Paris Agreement, outside the EU, while other regulations – like air quality management – would be legally and politically problematic to roll back.
He did caution that “there needs to be leadership coming from a different source now, rather than the EU,” adding that the government’s delay in passing the legislation that would create this new regulatory body wasn’t helping.
“The fact that the Environment Bill hasn’t progressed yet is causing concern in some quarters, because there are proposals that come through the bill, like the OEP.
“People are interested in seeing what the scope of its powers will be, and while the bill isn’t passed, there is some uncertainty as to how it’ll be advanced.”
But overall, Smith said he felt positive about the government’s approach to the environment in a post-Brexit world.
“If they carry through on what they have said, they should achieve the kind of standards that the environmental community is looking to them for,” he explained.
“The question will be how far their commitments are diluted by the time they hit the statute book. But the commitments are strong and sound, as they are.”
The political sphere
Jill Rutter, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Government who was a senior civil servant at Number 10, Defra, and the Treasury, raied a number of concerns regarding the post-Brexit handling of the environment.
“The government claims it doesn’t want to use Brexit to reduce environmental standards, but I think there are many battles to be fought to make good on its stated ambitions,” she said.
“This seems to be a government, when it comes to policies, with shallow roots. My fear is that this government wants to address the environment in quick, win-win ways.
“The fact that the Environment Bill has been delayed again isn’t encouraging – it’s a massive and unwieldy piece of legislation, but it’s falling down the priority list.”
She told us that a strong OEP was crucial to the future of the environment.
“I remember we had targets at Defra that always miraculously turned green the quarter before the target was due. That’s why you need the OEP,” she said.
But Rutter said that whatever shape the OEP ends up taking, it’ll be intrinsically limited.
“The area of EU standards where the UK had the most infractions and was taken to the ECJ the most was environmental obligations,” she explained.
“What you do lose and can’t replicate – whatever powers you give the OEP – is that independent enforcement power of a body that you can’t just abolish because it’s got too annoying.
“So that’s why a lot of environmental NGOs are worried. When it comes to the battle over air quality, say, the ECJ can ask the government to come back with a different plan – it’s difficult to replicate that kind of bite.”
Rutter said flat-out that the OEP “can never replace the ECJ. It’s absurd to think that a domestically created body set up in legislation, with a chair appointed by ministers, can ever replicate the external quality of the ECJ.
“That’s chalk and cheese, you can never do that. The ECJ has real powers – to fine you, and take money away. There is undoubtedly a weakening of what has been quite an effective compliance machine – the argument will become much more political than legal.”
She urged campaigners to “try and win the domestic argument” in order to plug the gap left by the ECJ.
“I think they should be winnable, and if they’re not, we’ll see why. By domesticating the environmental regime, what you lose in terms of formal enforcement, your aim should be to make up through internal buy-in and political momentum.”
Nick Voulvoulis, who is a Professor of Environmental Technology at Imperial College’s Centre for Environmental Policy, said some caution was wise.
“EU regulations and policies have pushed the UK to better protect the environment over the years, so in theory Brexit was always going to be a risk,” he explained.
“The wording in the trade deal recently signed is very loose in terms of commitments, with – for example – Article 7.2.2 stating that a party ‘shall not weaken or reduce’ its environmental or climate level of protections below those in place at the end of the transition period.”
However, he was more confident about the UK’s desire to tackle climate change.
“Issues related to climate change are less of a concern as the UK and EU are well aligned; there is more uncertainty about wider environmental protection,” said Voulvoulis.
“Where the UK will diverge, how fast and what will that mean for environmental protection is not clear. We will have to wait and see.”
Kierra Box, a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, was more critical of the government’s actions.
“To say we lack confidence in the government to keep our environment safe would be a huge understatement,” she said.
“The UK has only just left the EU, but government pledges to protect our food and farming standards are already under threat from lower import standards and the revision of genetically modified crop rules.
“On top of this the government has also scrapped EU targets to confront pressing environmental problems like plastic pollution.
“Meanwhile, the government’s flagship Environment Bill – which is meant to replace EU environmental rules with ‘world-leading’ legislation – has been delayed yet again.
“Boris Johnson’s climate credentials have also been severely dented. Allowing a new coal mine to be built in Cumbria is not a good look for a government gearing up to host crucial climate negotiations later in the year.”
Sarah Williams, a spokesperson for environmental campaigning coalition Greener UK, struck a more optimistic note – with some caveats.
“In areas such as agriculture, the UK government has developed plans that promise to strengthen protections for the environment,” she told us.
“If supported by the requisite funding, regulation and enforcement, the government’s farming reforms could see our nature and soil recover and thrive.
“On climate, the UK has set out to be a world leader, with ambitious targets, and it was therefore disappointing to see the UK-EU deal fall short on installing mechanisms for working closely on issues such as carbon pricing.
“To maximise potential in the year of COP26 (the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, to be hosted in Glasgow), we urge ministers to step up cooperation urgently in this area.
“In the past week we have seen how important standards around chemicals could be weakened.
“Having been a member of the EU’s world leading chemicals regime, REACH, the UK has decided to set up its own version, which must continue to protect the public from harmful chemicals and enforce the highest standards of chemical regulation in the coming years. Public health is at stake,” she continued.
“The powers and independence of the proposed Office for Environmental Protection need to be strengthened significantly if we are to maintain previous levels of oversight and enforcement.
“The legal status of the environmental principles needs to be enhanced when the much delayed Environment Bill returns to parliament.”
Predicting how Brexit will affect the environment is just that: a prediction. Nothing is certain at the moment, not least how our climate, rivers, animal populations, or green spaces will look like in 25 years.
The government is making the right noises, but it needs to be monitored closely, especially as it’s delayed the Environment Bill’s passage through parliament three times, missed tree-planting targets, and recently approved a new coal mine in Cumbria.
The main effect Brexit will have on our environment is ensuring the responsibility is back in our leaders’ hands.
They will have a huge influence on how sustainable our future is as a country – and in turn, we must influence them to ensure that they create quantifiable, necessary goals and achieve them.