Leaving the European Union creates huge risks and opportunity for our environment. A great many of the laws that protect it are underpinned by the EU, and could be at least partially unravelled should the Government have the appetite to do so. Yet the UK remains a place where people care deeply about the natural world and have a patriotic pride in protecting it.
Recent polling demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of voters, leave and remain, do not want to see green laws watered down after Brexit. In this context, the first job of green groups is to call for the quick and painless ‘repatriation and confirmation’ of existing environmental laws. Once this has been agreed, new opportunities will emerge to adapt them to own geography, aiming to restore as well as protect our landscapes and ecosystems. We must aim to do more than simply manage the decline of our wildlife that is detailed so painfully in the recent ‘State of Nature’ report.
A further challenge will arise from the impact of new trade agreements on established environmental laws and practices. In some cases, there may be a straightforward logic for retaining and improving standards. The UK’s car industry, for example, is geared towards producing hybrid and electric vehicles for European markets which will grow as the EU and UK clean up their transport systems. But the impact of trade policy could be less benign if the Government is minded to scrap consumer protections to secure agreements with countries operating to less stringent rules than our own.
Perhaps the greatest opportunity arising from Brexit lies in deciding how we will now manage our land and seas, once we are no longer subject to the common agricultural and common fisheries policies. Few will mourn their passing; but to build something better will take bold thinking. These policies were originally designed to maintain European food production and support rural employment. Their loss therefore begs the question – do we as a country still retain these aims? And if so, what kind of farming and fishing do we want?
Wildlife would certainly benefit if some forms of uneconomic farming came to an end. Yet an effort to remove all support payments from farmers, and to protect the environment simply through regulation, would likely end in both practical and moral failure. The farming lobby would insist on light-touch regulation as the quid pro quo for losing financial support; whilst smaller and less intensive farms would go out of business, ending centuries of rural life and culture and a lot of local food production, too.
A far happier outcome would be a continuation of some form of support payment, in exchange for the active protection of the country’s soils, water, climate and wildlife. Similarly in the fishing sector, whilst a more market-based system might come with some environmental standards, it would also put an end to significant parts of the UK’s traditional fleet. Green groups and coastal communities would fare better by working together to shape a new policy – demanding that fishing rights are given to those who protect the marine environment, and maintain the economies and culture of our coast.
Really strong partnerships of this kind will ultimately depend on greater rural devolution, producing a distinctively Devonian, Lancastrian or Snowdonian land management or coastal policy, actively shaped by local people and their relationships.
A similar approach is needed to tackle the other great post-Brexit challenge; the transition to a zero carbon economy. Because whilst the Paris Climate Agreement and the UK Climate Change Act provide a powerful framework for action, the government will need to do far more if it wants to capture the social and economic (as well as environmental) benefits offered by a burgeoning clean technology market.
We are currently lacking credible policies on energy efficiency and clean heat, decentralised generation, smart grids and electric vehicles (to name but a few). Shaping these through a new partnership with countries, regions and cities, and with the active involvement of investors and clean technology companies, could demonstrate that the UK is indeed open for clean energy business. But Greg Clarke will need to cut through a considerable amount of post-Brexit noise, if he wants the transition to a cleaner energy system to help him build a fairer and more balanced economy at home.
In the end, whatever we think about the referendum result, post-Brexit politics requires us to tackle the toxic after-burn of globalisation. For the environment movement, that means shaping a green politics that has devolution and social justice at its core. This mission will shape a new generation of green campaigners; and (of course) the land on which they stand.