Post-Brexit Britain is a land abound with uncertainty. Whether you voted Remain or Leave, there’s no denying that. Perhaps above all else, the future of our environment remains largely unknown as we prepare to leave the EU.
Despite the complete lack of attention given to the environment during the EU referendum by either side of the debate, it’s one of the areas which is most heavily affected by EU legislation. The food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe: these most basic but vital services provided by our natural environment, which we largely take for granted, are – for the meantime – largely governed by the EU. Though far from perfect, the EU has undoubtedly done a huge amount of good for the environment – take cleaner beaches, more breathable air (well, not always) and healthier populations of endangered species as a starter.
With our exit from the EU looming, the future of our environment is highly uncertain. Threats of environmental regulations being slashed in the coming years have set a worrying narrative in the debate over the future of our landscapes, wildlife and natural resources.
The UK Government is soon expected to publish its 25 Year Environment Plan, which will set out plans on how England’s environment and natural resources are governed and utilised in the coming years (25 to be exact, as the name suggests). It is expected to cover everything from air pollution to land management to water quality to species protection.
Given the lack of clarity so far from the UK Government on the policies which will replace those currently set by the EU, the 25 Year Environment Plan will be a key indication of how serious the Government is about protecting, enhancing and sustainably managing the environment for the benefit of all.
It has to be said that from the offset, the premise of a 25 year plan for the natural environment is somewhat short-sighted. Governments may be able to plan on a decadal timescale for some things, but nature isn’t one of them. Many of the actions that need to be taken to improve our environment need sustained, long-term action to achieve success. This is one of the key problems we face with tackling things like climate change, as successive governments have typically been wary of making long term commitments, instead focusing on short-term solutions for long-term problems. A Focus On Nature highlighted this issue and brought out their Vision for Nature, which sets out a 250 year plan for the UK’s environment.
Anyway, back to the 25 Year Plan. Here’s just some of the things that need to be included.
A whole-system approach to sustainability
Above all else, the UK Government must ensure that sustainability and the environment are at the heart of all decision-making in government, not just in DEFRA and BEIS. Nearly all governmental decision-making affects the environment to some degree, be it transport, energy, housing, waste – the list goes on. Incorporating sustainability and consideration for the environment into all departments of government would ensure that we start to view ourselves as part of our environment, not separate to it. Not only would this help to protect the environment, but would enable it to be viewed as the valuable asset which it is.
More ambitious tree planting
Forests are some of the most valuable assets on earth. They reduce the severity of floods. They reduce soil erosion. They are home to many rare and endangered species. They provide us with a low cost, low carbon building material. Oh, and they soak up and store huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Need I go on?
Despite the plethora of benefits that trees provide for us and other species, forests in the UK are not in good shape. England is in a state of deforestation. Yes, deforestation. There are reports of more trees being harvested than planted, whilst vast swathes of land are purposefully kept bare of trees for unsustainable land use practices across the UK. We’re miles behind our European contemporaries too – only 13% of the UK is covered by forests, compared with a European average of 36%. We need to do two things. Firstly, we need to plant far more native woodland to reverse the decline of many species across the country, protect us against flooding and store carbon. Secondly, we need to plant far more commercial forests so that we can become more self-sufficient in our use of timber as a natural resource. Simple.
The UK has some of the worst air pollution in Europe. Before we were even out of January, London broke it’s annual limit for nitrogen dioxide emissions (in FIVE DAYS) and had such poor air quality that Sadiq Khan declared a “public health emergency”. Poor air quality really isn’t something that we should just put up with – it kills 40,000 people a year, mainly from high volumes of traffic pumping out particulate matter and nitrous oxides. Despite efforts to promote electric vehicles and make polluters pay through the Congestion Charge, our capital is still choking. But this isn’t unique to London. Air pollution is rife around all around the country – Glasgow, Port Talbot and Leeds have all been named among the worst cities for air pollution.
We need to see real action to reduce air pollution. A good start would be for other cities across the country to follow London’s lead and implement traffic demand management measures like the Congestion Charge. Measures to encourage people to leave the car at home when commuting to work, like Nottingham’s Workplace Parking Levy, could also do wonders for our towns and cities. But the Government also needs to have a systematic review of where they are prioritising spending in transport in order to fix air pollution. Spending on roads and cars dominates the transport budget, with public transport, walking and cycling receiving pennies in comparison. The economic, social and environmental benefits of tackling air pollution are clear, so let’s see some action.
Agriculture that works with nature
Agriculture was barely mentioned in the lead up the referendum, which is pretty staggering when you think agriculture makes up around 40% of the EU’s budget. In many cases, financial support from the EU for British farmers has helped to keep their production economically viable. This presents a serious problem for the UK Government which the public deserves answers on fast.
Leaving the EU could have benefits for two reasons: Firstly, farmers and land managers could be paid more equitably for what they do with their land, instead of the unjust and highly uneconomical policy of receiving more money for the more land you own, regardless of what you’re doing with the land. This unfairly benefits large landowners who aren’t necessarily using their land for any public, economic or environmental benefit. Rebalancing the way payments are made needs serious attention.
Secondly, we need to make farming work with nature, not against it. Under the Single Farm Payment, farmland in many cases has to be completely cleared of trees. This is a backwards approach to land management – trees provide cover for animals (both wild animals and livestock), help to reduce soil erosion and lessen the effects of flooding, all of which would benefit farmers. This is just one example of where we could make farming work with nature – there’s ample examples of achieving productive farming whilst benefiting other species and reducing pollution, to name but two benefits.
The 25 Year Environment Plan will be a key moment, both for this Government and for our environment. Let’s make sure that they make a success of it.