During the referendum campaign the Environmental Audit Committee, which I chair, conducted an inquiry which concluded that membership of the EU has been overwhelmingly positive for the UK’s environment. The EU shapes an estimated 80% of our national environmental laws, and few areas of Government policy will be more affected by the referendum result. Theresa May’s Government must ensure that leaving the EU does not mean going back to the days when Britain was the ‘dirty man’ of Europe.
When they appeared in front of my committee, neither DExEU Minister Robin Walker nor Defra Minister Therese Coffey could offer any reassurance that EU environmental protections or funding for agri-environment schemes would be maintained when we leave. And they had no details about the process of leaving or the shape of our future relationship with Europe.
Over the summer we published a report calling on the Government to ban microbeads. These tiny pieces of plastic, found in many household products, are polluting our seas and entering the foodchain. If you’ve eaten 6 oysters, you’ll have eaten 50 microplastic particles. A week after our report was published, the Government accepted our recommendation, which may be a new world record for select committees. Of course, fish and seabirds do not care where the plastic they are eating comes from, so it’s vital the ban covers all solid plastic in all down the drain products.
Our recent report on Department for Transport’s environmental record found lacklustre progress on tackling transport emissions, which are now the biggest single source of greenhouse gas emissions. To meet our climate change targets at the lowest cost to the public, we need two thirds of all new cars to be ultra-low emissions vehicles by 2030. We have no confidence the Government will meet this target.
We also heard that 38 of 43 air quality zones have illegally high levels of NOx, a pollutant which causes respiratory diseases. The Government’s plan to deal with this problem will only bring levels within legal limits by 2020, ten years behind schedule. More support for cleaner cars would reduce air pollution, and give manufacturers like Nissan, Toyota, LTI and Honda a reason to choose their UK assembly plants to make their latest, cleanest, models. This is particularly important given the uncertainty that has followed the EU referendum result.
Looking ahead, our report on the Treasury’s environmental record will be published before this year’s Autumn Statement. So far we’ve heard that the decision to cancel the Carbon Capture and Storage competition in last year’s spending review will make it £30 billion more expensive to meet our long-term climate change targets. We also received evidence that a whole host of Treasury decisions, such as cancelling the zero carbon standard for new homes and withdrawing the PFI incentive for recycling projects have damaged investor confidence in the sustainability sectors.
This autumn we will begin a new inquiry into how the UK can implement the UN’s new Sustainable Development Goals. It will look at how eradicating poverty, ending discrimination against women and girls, reducing inequality and building a more sustainable economy can be achieved here in the UK. With key EU social and environmental protections in doubt, international agreements and frameworks such as the Sustainable Development Goals will become important in tracking success – or failure – in these areas.