This article, written by David Warburton (Member of Parliament for Somerton & Frome), was published on the Conservative Environment Network website on 29th January 2020. The article can be viewed on the CEN website here: https://www.cen.uk.com/our-blog/2020/1/29/environmental-standards-can-be-strengthened-outside-the-eu-2
With our departure from the European Union now beyond doubt, the Government is rightly turning its attention to a multitude of other critical issues. The Conservatives won the election not just because of Brexit, but also because the electorate shared our vision on many issues, including the environment. And the manifesto rightly showed not only that the environment will be a priority for this Conservative Government but that we will uphold and enhance our world-leading environmental standards as we leave the EU. So now as we finally get Brexit done, as the adage goes, it’s time to deliver on this pledge.
The environment has shot up the political agenda in recent years and is considered by more and more as a priority. During the election, on innumerable freezing doorsteps and at every dusty hall hustings, I found the issue raised far more than in 2017, and especially so with younger people. Happily, we should be proud of the Conservatives’ record on the environment. Since 2010, renewable energy has grown from generating 6 per cent of UK electricity to 37 per cent, while last year we became the first G20 country to commit in law to reaching net zero emissions.
So I was delighted that the Conservative manifesto put the environment right at the core of our post- Brexit vision for Britain, with pledges to focus the first budget on the environment, boost research and development funding for clean technologies, invest in energy efficiency to lower fuel bills, and, critically, to legislate to ensure no post-Brexit regression on our high environmental standards.
Outside the EU, we now have the opportunity to make far more effective environmental laws. We can maintain and enhance our overall ambition for environmental improvement, but achieve it in a less prescriptive and more market-friendly way: in a manner to suit Britain’s distinct needs and circumstances.
Yes, the EU has undoubtedly made some important improvements to environmental protections over the years, as we’ve seen in policies to clean up our beaches or give legal protections to our most precious habitats. But there have been conspicuous failures. Under the Common Agricultural Policy, for example, farmers have not been properly rewarded for environmental stewardship. As a result, we’ve seen sharp declines in farmland wildlife and pollinator numbers, with much of the £3 billion in annual subsidies being handed to farmers based on how much land they farm, rather than the way that land is maintained and protected.
There have been weaknesses in EU policy around air quality and vehicle emissions. Recent EU engine standards failed to reduce emissions from diesel vehicles as much as had been expected. Subsequent tests, based on more realistic driving conditions, demonstrated that vehicle NO2 emissions were in practice far higher than the flawed official tests had predicted. So, in tandem with past government policies encouraging people to buy diesel cars, we now have a generation of cars on our roads adding to air pollution.
Let’s be clear, our environment has nothing to fear from Brexit. Many of our best environmental laws and policies, such as the closure of coal power stations, are domestic. And environmental protections have cross-party support in Parliament and the backing of the vast majority of the public.
In fact, the Government has already set about delivering its commitment to improving environmental protections as we leave the EU. The upcoming Environment Bill really is ground-breaking legislation, putting sustainability - both environmental and economic - at the heart of policymaking. The Bill includes a requirement for the Government to set legally binding targets on air quality, water, biodiversity and resource use, as well as establishing a powerful new independent Office for Environmental Protection to hold the Government to account. The Bill is also the natural home for a non-regression clause, which would guarantee the Government’s vision for maintaining and enhancing our existing set of environmental standards.
As has been repeated time and time again, the Government will clearly not be lowering our world-leading standards. Putting that manifesto pledge into binding legislation would let that message echo ever more loudly and clearly. It would testify to our businesses and future trading partners that the UK will remain at the vanguard of the fight against climate change and environmental degradation, and it would reassure voters. It should, however, also leave the Government free to modify environmental rules. We must have the future flexibility to use our new freedoms to raise standards through mechanisms not yet conceived.
I believe the environment is the natural place for us to begin the healing process after years of divisiveness. Now is the time to launch our ambitious vision and make this country the cleanest, greenest on earth.