As Europe sets the pace on the environment, the UK’s four nations struggle to keep up

January 10 2024, by Baroness Young of Old Scone

Wherever you stand politically on Brexit, the EU did have some benefits. In the areas of climate change and the environment, EU processes for reaching eventual consensus on policy and law were slow and tortuous but resulted in agreements that by and large stuck for the longer term, giving more consistency and certainty for business, regulators and the legal processes. 

The UK current government by flip flop does the opposite.

At a recent RSE Scotland-Europe Initiative workshop, we discussed the attitudes to environmental policy within each of the devolved nations post-Brexit. This came with acknowledgement that the development of EU environmental policy had fostered a weird but effective ratchet upwards for environmental standards, with ministers across the EU egging each other on to higher ambition, comforted by safety in numbers.

The first years of our post-EU experience so far underline that not only are we diverging from the EU, but that the four nations of the UK are diverging from each other even more. Scotland, unlike England always hostile to Brexit, has the Keeping Pace Power under the Continuity Act, backed it seems by real commitment and a duty to report on how Scotland is aligning with EU legislation.

Wales also had a milder view on Brexit (especially now and despite voting for it in 2016); it aspires to a set of higher and more ambitious environmental goals than England and is also heavily influenced by their Well-being of Future Generations Act with which all Welsh legislation has to conform.

Northern Ireland is even more distinctive with the agreement to avoid a hard border with the South resulting in  it being for all intents and purposes a part of the EU. The net result is divergence between the four nations, with little common framework, driven sometimes because we can, sometimes only in detail or timing, sometimes as a product of lack of capacity to engage, track and consider developments in EU legislation.

Common frameworks and contrasting approaches

Our discussions highlighted some opportunities. Environmental Standards Scotland, together with its counterparts the Office for Environmental Protection in England and similar bodies yet to be developed in Wales and Northern Ireland, could play important roles in enabling us to compare  and contrast among the four, to highlight what seems to work in one country that might be useful for the others and to identify good practice. That sort of benefit will need a willingness among the four nations to share and not to be different simply because they don’t want to look the same. Alas this has not been the prevailing climate of co-operation between Scotland and England for 700 years.

Agricultural policy post-CAP is a major opportunity to learn from four-nation differences as agricultural policy increasingly diverges on major issues such as how far to retain direct payments to farmers, how far the prime purpose of agricultural subsidy should be food production or environmental sustainability and climate change. Scotland is embarking on a just transition plan for land use and agriculture, something all four nations need urgently.

With that background, the Common Frameworks process, aiming to underpin a system of overarching principles at UK level with devolved solutions in tune with those agreed principles, takes on a greater importance though it has had an early rough ride politically.  However, the Internal Market Act is acting as a blocker to the higher ambitions of some of the four nations, with the Scottish Parliament voting to repeal it (it cannot).

Towards the end of our discussions, we sought for ways out from under the tensions at UK and national level. Subnational actors like cities and local authorities are often forging the most ambitious environmental and climate change paths, in the four nations as in the USA.  On occasions the EU sets standards which become the international norm and where we have little option as trading nations other than to adopt that norm. This fraught journey has only just begun!

Baroness Barbara Young of Old Scone is a Labour peer who spoke in the recent RSE Scotland-Europe Initiative workshop on Climate Change and Environment. She is a former CEO of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and ex-chair of English Nature as well as ex-chief executive of the Environment Agency.

A version of this blog appeared in the Herald on January 3 2024.

The RSE’s blog series offers personal views on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.

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