Brexit, Air Quality and the 25 Year Environment Plan

25 January 2018

Yesterday (11 January, 2018), Theresa May, the UK Prime Minster, set out the Government’s vision for environmental protection, and even improvement, for the next 25 years. This will take us beyond Brexit and any transition period, to the point where the UK’s environmental policies stand alone. A Green Future: Our 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment lays out a framework to “improve the environment over a generation by creating richer habitats for wildlife, improving air and water quality and curbing the scourge of plastic in the world’s oceans”, according to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The plan is certainly ambitious in its broad scope, seeking to reconnect the largely urban public with the environment and setting out the direction of travel into the long term.

In some senses, the plan falls into the trap of equating “the environment” with “the countryside”, although it does at least touch on the full range of environmental threats which Defra deals with: the plan is badged for the Government although it was produced by Defra and covers mainly Defra issues. However, for all its ambition, the Plan says almost nothing about legislation which is surely required to deliver at least some of its aims. In addition, the push on eliminating unavoidable plastic waste by 2042 and a drive to increase recycling rates, alongside a new Waste and Resources Strategy, might have come as a shock to the Resources team in Defra, whose budget and capacity has been slashed in recent years.

Taking a step back, you have to wonder why now? And what does this mean in the context of Brexit? And are these two, in fact, the same question? As with all questions on Brexit, the answers are mired in uncertainty with the picture changing on an almost daily basis. In the process of writing the EIC report Improving Air Quality After Brexit, which Aether sponsored, it was immediately clear that, the closer and more detailed the examination of the issues, the more uncertain things become. However, it is unlikely that the worst fears of environmentally minded organisations will become reality, in the near term at least and certainly for as long as this plan holds sway.

What do we know about Brexit and the environment so far?

The European Union has been the main driver behind the UK’s policies and regulation on the environment, making Europe probably the most advanced region in the world for environmental protection overall. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t still learn from the approaches and experiences in North America, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, or indeed anywhere else. The great fear, or possibly hope in some sectors, was that Brexit would sweep away that body of regulation in its entirety, allowing factories to discharge what they wanted, waste to go unmanaged, rivers and the sea to be polluted and for cars to go back to the good old days when you could smell the unburnt hydrocarbons in their exhausts, even if you couldn’t see them for the smog.

As things stand, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will transpose all the current body of EU legislation into UK law. So, as of exit day +1, the UK will have the nearly the same set of legislation as it had immediately before Brexit. There are a couple of key differences. The first is that some of the core elements of recent environmental legislation, such as the polluter pays or precautionary principles, won’t be transposed. These are contained in the EU Treaties as opposed to Directives or Regulations and so not part of the body of legislation referred to in the draft Bill. Secondly, all references to the European Commission and similar bodies will be removed, which means that the reporting and enforcement functions will need to be carried out by…who?

These are fundamental issues. Friends of the Earth have raised the prospect that, in removing these key principles from legislation without public consultation, the UK is acting in contravention of the UN Aarhus Convention. Moreover, without the requirement to make air quality data public and the threat of EU infraction proceedings, it is unlikely that Client Earth’s repeated, successful challenges of the Government’s National Air Quality Plan would have had the impact they have.

This has been tacitly acknowledged by Secretary of State Michael Gove. In various statements to Parliamentary Committees in Parliament over recent months, he has discussed the formation of a “Commission-like body” and of incorporating the key principles in guidance. Even so, none of the many proposed amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, trying to set such a body and principles into law, secured Government support in the Commons and so were defeated. Nevertheless, the 25 Year Plan does give a commitment to consult on a “new independent body to hold government to account and a new set of environmental principles to underpin policy-making”. Once again, saying the right things without fully committing to hard outcomes.

Why focus on the environment now?

Michael Gove’s announcements on environmental policy have come as a pleasant surprise to many in the environmental movement and have revealed an environmental stance which was not apparent before his appointment at Defra. And now we have a major speech on the environment by Theresa May. While the 25 Year plan has been much delayed – it was first proposed under Liz Truss, two Secretary of States ago – it is hard to remember the last time an environment strategy contained a foreword by the Prime Minister. This clearly shows the political clout Defra now wields under Michael Gove, something sorely lacking in the past.

While there may be a genuine desire to protect and improve our environment among Ministers, including the Prime Minister, this has also been the case in the past, when the environment had little traction in policy or coverage in the media. As always, there must also be a political angle. It may simply be that environmental protection, in its broadest sense, is not something anyone can seriously disagree with. Such issues are as rare as free-range hens’ teeth right now and it must be quite refreshing (and image enhancing) to be able to talk about something which doesn’t immediately result in a wave of vitriol and counter-vitriol.

It’s only when you get into the specifics – restricting access to city centres by polluting vehicles, more cycle lanes, “green” taxes, building windfarms, separate waste collections, etc. – that the arguments start. It’s noticeable that Michael Gove’s pronouncements have tended to steer clear of specifics, at least in those areas where the public have any perceived personal stake; very few of us understand agri-economics and so discussions on changing farming subsidies and banning neonic pesticides don’t really chime. Likewise, his discussion of environmental governance – crucially important but hardly click bait.

The launch of the plan, including the media work around it, focussed almost exclusively on reducing plastic waste. Since the success of Blue Planet II, which confirmed Sir David Attenborough as the most powerful voice on the environment right now, only the most churlish would disagree that this is a key issue. So, is there explicit support for the creation of functional waste management systems in developing countries? Of course, that would mean sending money overseas, which the Daily Mail, another flag bearer for action on plastic waste, might not fully support.


What about air quality?

It is interesting to note that “the largest environmental threat to public health in the UK”, as Defra described air quality in the National Air Quality Plan, has not featured in the Secretary of State’s announcements. Nor is there much in the 25 Year Plan; in fact, more space is devoted to reducing litter which, while important, doesn’t result in tens of thousands of premature deaths every year. There is a commitment to producing an air quality strategy this year (a plan for a plan) and some re-affirmation of regulation which is already on the cards. The explicit mention of action on ammonia emissions from agriculture is new, as is the commitment to “over the long term…work towards a shift away from using solid fuels to heat people’s homes”, as issue which has recurred since the last big push in the 1950s and 60s.

The Secretary of State may be wary of getting into an area, air quality, which is still the subject of legal proceedings. However, anyone familiar with the subject also knows that there are no easy wins. Improving urban air quality quickly will require a radical shift in either the way our vehicles are powered or our ability to use them in urban environments, or both. It may also see increased costs to industry (even if cost beneficial for society), further regulation of agriculture or even a restriction in how we heat our homes. Enter the vitriol.

In Improving Air Quality After Brexit, we set out the opportunities that leaving the constraints of the EU policy development process could offer. Linking air quality more closely to climate change mitigation has the potential to make huge efficiency savings through joined up action. Our legislative structures for air quality are a mess, with some still derived from the Clean Air Act 1956. And the UK could set targets more rationally, bringing particulate matter, which has dropped off the policy radar, back into focus as the most harmful air pollutant requiring further action. Setting up a statutory Committee on Air Quality, modelled along the lines of the Committee on Climate Change, will increase transparency and give air quality an independent voice. New primary legislation is needed, either a new Clean Air Act or a chapter of a new Environment Act, to give these changes real teeth. Will these things feature in the post-Brexit environmental policy push? We’re not holding our breath…or maybe we should.

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