Since the implementation of the first Environmental Action Programme in 1972, the EU has been shaping the environmental policies of all its member states. Such is the extent of the EU’s influence that the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee finds that 80% of the UK’s environmental rules stem from EU directives.
The EU has influenced the UK’s environmental policy agenda in a number of ways. The most obvious one is legislation, stemming from the EU Environmental Acquis (a list of environmental policies and recommendations on their implementation). The enforcement of these rules falls on the European Commission and EU’s Court of Justice, which can place levies on member states for failing to comply with legislation. Finally, the EU maintains funding programmes for member states to use for policies and programmes surrounding the environment, notably the LIFE programme.
Criticisms of the EU’s environmental policies are extensive. Overfishing in UK waters spotlights the flaws of the Common Fisheries Policy. Implementation and enforcement of EU legislation has proven to be lacklustre, with a 2018 joint report on air quality by 14 European audit offices blaming air pollution in the EU for the premature deaths for 400,000 people. Finally, the EU policy framework have shown to be in disarray, attempting to set overall targets whilst simultaneously imposing detailed plans for individual sectors, notable with carbon emission reductions and the car industry, resulting in a rigid and contradictory approach. The EU’s approach is characterised by excessive micromanagement and control freak tendencies.
Simply retaining what has been inherited from the EU would prove ineffectual for the UK in developing a cost-effective approach to tackling climate change.
Whilst leaving the EU may potentially uncouple the UK from the plethora of flaws surrounding the EU’s environmental policies, the government still faces a number of challenges. Indeed, with the UK set to host the Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 26) in November this year, the coming months will prove vital for the UK Government to reaffirm its environmental and clean-energy commitments.
However, the opportunities presented by Brexit should not be understated. The UK will soon have the chance to tailor its own environmental policies, the nature as to how they are enforced, and how funds are utilised to tackle climate change. Parliament can finally make environmental laws for the UK, learning from the failures of the EU’s framework in order to make an effective set of policies. However, what form may this framework take?
Rather than completely start from scratch, the UK may improve on the standards and policies inherited from the EU whilst incorporating a new, independent ‘green watchdog‘ to administer environmental legislation. Such a programme may well support requirements for external regulatory alignment with the EU for trading purposes. The recent announcement for the phasing out of house coal and wet wood by 2023 to reduce air pollution certainly indicates that this may well be the route preferred by the current government.
Certainly, there is a case for adopting this notion. Regulations deemed to be effective for the UK can be retained in a new package whilst older legislative pieces like the 25-year environment plan and 2008 Climate Change Act may become cornerstones for future policies, effectively creating a UK Environment Acquis that is better suited to the UK.
Alternatively, the UK could embark on a bold programme of regulatory loosening with the objective of creating a more efficient and effective means of achieving environmental goals. This scenario may well be characterised as a market-led approach. However, this does not necessarily mean an abrupt elimination of all regulation and environmental targets, rather, providing the private sector with incentives to find efficient solutions to cutting carbon without compromising the UK economy too much.
Market-compatible approaches to tackling climate change are already being flirted with. The Clean Capitalist Coalition advocates embracing positive incentives for reductions in carbon emissions. Such incentives include providing tax reductions for technologies that reduce emissions.
The U.S. is considering its own free-market approach to tackling climate change, in the form of a carbon dividend. By empowering the energy industry to innovate through competition and making carbon emissions a taxable externality, the U.S. may well achieve carbon emission reductions without economic catastrophe. Crucially, such policies seek not to increase the size of government, as all income from this tax are paid back to households. Utilising a single carbon tax rather than the collage of contradictory policies and targets adopted by the EU will prevent micromanagement of carbon reduction whilst allowing firms and households to determine the best way to reduce their emissions. Such policies would ensure that attempts to tackle climate change are not disproportionate to the scale of the problem, which may well be economically catastrophic. The UK government would do well to consider their own version of this policy.
Free-market scoped solutions are not confined to carbon reductions, as evident with the use of private properties in wildlife and wilderness conservation. Audubon Society’s Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary provides an excellent case study. This refuge permits drilling for and production of natural gas whilst coinciding with protecting the natural environment and animals that reside within its boundaries. Through the revenues generated, Audubon Society can maintain the refuge. Private nature reserves where grants and permissions are given by the property owners for hunting or logging present a means of sustainable environmental conservation.
If the UK government does indeed wish to become leaders in tackling climate change, utilising market tools such as a carbon tax and promoting the role of private property should be carefully considered.
Brexit presents the opportunity to tailor an innovative and effective set of environmental policies. These freedoms should not be underestimated. Unshackling the UK from the EU’s environmental agenda grants the UK Government the opportunity to formulate a coherent environmental programme without being dictatorial as to how to achieve the set standards. Reducing carbon emissions is going to come at a considerable economic cost under the best of circumstances. This makes it all the more important that we do it in the most cost-effective way possible.