A green future after Brexit?

3rd April 2020

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Steve Nicoll

Neil Howe casts his eye over environmental regulations and strategies in a post-Brexit UK

The calendar of environmental policy and regulation is starting to take shape for 2020. Current focus is on the legislation needed to secure environmental protections, with Bills on agriculture, trade and fisheries – but it's the Environment Bill that sets out how our standards will look post-Brexit.

Reintroduction of the Bill

The Environment Bill is the main driver of the 25-Year Environment Plan and sets a domestic framework for environmental governance.

Legislation has already been laid to reach net-zero carbon by 2050, and the UK is hosting the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties in November. However, there is concern about how far the government will diverge from EU standards, and whether protections will be weakened. The Bill does not specifically rule out non-regression of environmental law, but does include a clause that future UK governments introducing new legislation must state whether it will reduce existing environmental protection. Significant developments in other countries' environmental legislation must also be considered through an environmental improvement plan and environmental target-setting process, both of which will be enshrined in law.

Resources and waste

The Resources and Waste Strategy will shape waste policy for 2020. Several consultations were carried out last year, which included plans to: set resource efficiency standards for products and push for recycling, re-use and repair; make packaging producers pay the full cost of dealing with their waste; extend producer responsibility to cover household waste recovery costs; and introduce a deposit return scheme for cans and bottles.

The headline-grabber is the plan to charge extra for single-use plastic items, and some fears of deregulation are being eased by the introduction of powers to stop polluting plastic waste being exported to developing countries.

There are also plans to tackle waste crime, which costs the UK economy around £600m every year. An electronic waste tracking system will be established, and legislation introduced to clarify the legal requirement for those transporting, managing and describing waste to be 'technically competent'.

Air quality

Defra aims to build on its Clean Air Strategy via the Environment Bill. Legally binding targets will be set for fine particulate matter, the air quality management framework will be strengthened and simplified, more powers will be given to local authorities, and the responsibility for addressing air pollution will be shared across local government structures and relevant public bodies. Evidence of this emerged in February with details on the phasing out of coal and wet wood used in household burners – the single largest contributor of fine particulate matter emissions.

The Bill also tightens laws on manufacturers, forcing them to recall vehicles that do not meet relevant environmental standards.


Although the Environment Bill is widely considered to contain positive steps, the issue of how everything will be enforced is the subject of much debate.

The Bill includes provisions for a new independent Office for Environmental Protection, which will scrutinise environmental policy and law, investigate complaints and enforce action against public authorities that are failing to uphold environmental standards. Climate change legislation, including the commitment to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, will fall under its remit. While this 'watchdog' can take companies to tribunals and provide an impartial view on the enforcement of environmental law, opponents have said it lacks the teeth to hold the government to account.

Companies managing their waste need to be aware of new powers for regulators to make charging schemes to recover costs. With a huge focus already on waste crime, these could fund regulators in tracing fly-tipping, unlicensed waste companies and poorly classified waste.

The prospect of more robust duty of care enforcement should be a major concern for the whole of the waste sector in 2020.

Neil Howe is senior legal author and consultant at Cedrec Information Systems.


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