What are the scenarios that our sector could face from the Brexit result – this will be driven, I believe, by two factors assuming a general election is not imminent (still a possibility): the immediate choice of leadership in Government, and; the drivers in terms of short term pain.
Short term pain there will be, I already know of companies that believe they have lost major business deals across the weekend, and the instability and unknowns as regards trade tariffs will only cause greater problems in these areas until they are resolved via negotiation in a period of months or years. I am not one that wants to ‘talk down’ the country, and we all know the fickleness and insecurity of markets, but certain concrete impacts are undeniable and will cause a wide range of domestic problems. There will also be opportunities, but these are likely to be in the longer term, once national and commercial relationships are established on a new footing.
The temptation for Government will be to ease the burdens for business in these choppy conditions. But will they go for a quick fix in areas of domestic environmental policy? Reducing landfill tax, so long a fundamental tenet of driving improved environmental performance, could be a tempting area.
Longer term, the fate of EU Directive driven domestic legislation, in particular the implications for business again could come under fire. The Packaging Regulations, and other producer responsibility legislation in the light of low commodity price and associated business burdens could be another target.
Conversely, a new leadership could embrace environmental standards and policy as a proactive statement that we can still be as green (or greener!) than the EU and in the UK we have a track record of making major gains in areas like pollution prevention and control, renewables, recyclables market development and alternative waste treatment technology.
For local authorities, where are the policy drivers taking them? Well, there has been an absence of Government policy on waste management anyway for some time now, with the need to meet declining budgets whilst managing environmental performance often being the immediate pressure on service delivery. But what of national recycling targets, separate collections and the recyclate quality debate, the timing could not be much worse when we consider the value of the basket of recyclables (assuming the declining value of the pound is a short term challenge!).
And yet if we stay rooted in the dilemmas of the present we run the risk of being hit by the juggernaut of major environmental challenges that continue unabated – materials scarcity for critical resources (see image above from the British Geological Survey about the Countries which are the main sources of elements or groups of elements, of economic value) and global warming.
We cannot and should not allow environmental legislation to be watered down or removed without a fight, not least because it is a long road to bring into effect regulations and legislation which are often counter to short termism and the need for immediate returns, in exchange for tackling long term environmental challenges that the market is ill equipped to react to.
As environmental professionals – those who recognise the importance of preserving resources, combatting climate change and enhancing our local environment – we have an obligation to proactively demonstrate why this issue matters. By maintaining and improving our environmental performance all markets will remain open to us, and then the politicians need to do the work on tariffs and negotiations in order to remove economic barriers.
There is cause for optimism: many UK businesses have embraced the Circular Economy ahead of any legislation which is still being debated at EU level, as they see the benefits commercially in the long term as well as the short term, and we still see voluntary measures such as ISO14001 rising year on year as companies strive to lead in terms of their environmental credentials. Local authorities, often stimulated by a more environmentally aware population, have often exceeded national targets and thresholds. Legislation is not the only driver, but a strong Government policy and environmental leadership can commit our country to a more sustainable future in an increasingly fractured geo-political environment, where resources are going to become strategically more and more important.