Brexit — a calamitous 12 months of unresolved negotiations that has left Parliament in chaos, a nation divided and a business community warning of economic disaster without a trade deal. Brexit has dominated the news agenda this year. Yet, despite the political mayhem, there have been a number of notable achievements and a few areas where “must do better” still applies. John Barwise reviews the highs and lows of 2018.

Brexit turmoil

The 12 days of Christmas turned into a constitutional crisis, as the Prime Minister fought to save her job and her Brexit deal. Theresa May managed to fight off the vote of no confidence, while the Brexit deal she negotiated remains unresolved.

At the close of play, Parliament was insisting the UK cannot leave the EU without a deal, while the Government was busy setting out its strategy, backed with £2 billion of extra funding, to leave the EU without one.

No one really knows where all this is heading, but we do know the direction of travel. The Government’s White Paper, published in July, includes a “non-regression” clause and a common rulebook on standards and environmental regulations which will continue to allow frictionless trade of goods and services including agri-foods.

While this may be good for businesses, the National Audit Office (NAO) warns that many government departments are simply not fully prepared for a no-deal scenario. “The risk of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) not delivering everything it had originally intended for a no-deal scenario is high and, until recently, not well understood by the department,” the NAO report points out. Defra has just been allocated a further £410 million to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.

Withdrawal from the EU raises the prospect of the UK ceasing to be involved in European agencies that have helped shape environment protection laws across the EU. UKAS, the UK accreditation service, says maintaining some form of mutual accreditation with the EU is essential for ensuring goods and services do not need to be retested, inspected or certified for export.

This is particularly unsettling for the UK’s chemical industry, whose exports to the EU are valued at around £17 billion a year. Without a negotiated settlement, chemical manufacturers would no longer be able to export products to EU Member States, as registrations of products would cease to be recognised by the EU. Representatives say the prospect would be “catastrophic” for the industry.

Business leaders are also calling on Brexit negotiators to include energy trading and joint action on climate change in any final Brexit deal. In a joint letter to the Government, business leaders argue that the final Brexit agreement should include continued commitment to high-environmental standards on products, vehicles, industrial emissions, and sustainable finance, and continued commitment to participate in the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS).

Other news

The Brexit crisis will continue well into 2019 and probably beyond that. In the meantime, it is worth adding a few column inches to what has been achieved this year.

Climate change

At an international level, the biggest achievement in 2018 has to be the climate change agreement reached in Poland this December. Brinkmanship, the hallmark of most UN climate negotiations, finally gave way to a breakthrough, with the majority of countries attending the climate change talks finally agreeing on a universal set of rules to cut emissions. As expected, the USA did not sign the rulebook, and further talks on carbon credits have been put on hold until next year, but this particular deal does mean most countries will now start to measure and report on emissions cuts and these will be independently verified.

Perhaps the biggest and most scary motivator for this agreement was the latest climate change report from the IPCC, which likened the acceleration of global warming to that of “speeding freight train”, and calls on the international community to step up to avoid “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

Renewables

For the UK, climate change in 2018 brought heatwaves and cloudless skies that saw record solar power generation. On 30 June 2018, solar power was the UK’s top power source, generating over 27% of our energy needs and overtaking gas and nuclear for the first time ever. Wind power also had its day, supplying a record 32% of UK energy in November. Coal-fired power generation, a major source of global warming, will be phased out by 2025.

Environmental regulations

Work on Environmental Permitting Regulations (EPR) continues to progress, following the Smarter Environmental Regulation Review (SERR). The Environment Agency (EA) has updated its public register of environmental information, including more detailed information on environmental permits, water resources, waste management, emissions trading, control of major accidents and hazards and environmental permitting.

The EA has also been busy with its enforcement notices, publishing its revised register of civil sanctions, which details environmental damage caused by businesses that break the rules and the remediation work they must pay for to avoid prosecution.

What a waste

Waste crime has hit the headlines several times this year, as the Government tries to clamp down on this illegal activity that costs the taxpayer over £600 million a year in clean-up costs. Waste criminals are targeting empty industrial units to dispose of thousands of tonnes of illegal waste, which often leaves landowners and councils paying to have the waste removed. And, according to a Government review, regulators lack the power and resources to do much about it.

This could be about to change, following the recent publication of the Government’s ambitious new Resources and Waste Strategy which will see the introduction of digital tagging of waste movement, better intelligence sharing and the creation of a joint unit for waste crime, including tougher sentencing for organised waste criminals.

Boost for resource efficiency

The Resources and Waste Strategy also includes a raft of new initiatives to improve resource efficiency which, according to Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, means “valuing finite resources by keeping them in the economy and out of the environment”.

The plan is to double resource productivity and eliminate avoidable waste, both by 2050. New policies to achieve this include a new deposit-return scheme for single-use drinks containers, ecodesign packaging and sustainable production using circular economy models to improve resource efficiency.

Fracking

A 2018 review would not be complete without mentioning fracking. Heralded by former Prime Minister David Cameron four years ago as an energy boost to the UK economy, fracking has so far failed to deliver shale gas on a commercial scale and failed to convince the public that horizontal drilling for gas supplies is worth the risks. The Government issued the first UK commercial fracking permit in July to Cuadrilla to start shale gas operations at its Lancashire site. Since then, the firm has had to halt operations several times because of earth tremors, similar to those experienced in Blackpool during exploratory drilling, which led to a temporary moratorium. Calls to relax rules on seismic test thresholds have been rejected by the Government.

Green space

One of the downsides of leaving the EU will be a loss of membership to the European Galileo satellite programme, which the UK helped to develop. Not to be left out, the Government plans to invest £92 million in a UK Global Navigation Satellite System.

Two UK Space Agency projects are already up and running — the first, dubbed Space for Smarter Government Programme (SSGP), is a strategic, national, programme that will allow government departments, regulators, emergency services and local authorities access to satellite images to support public services. The second, known as “eye in the sky” is a radar satellite that can see earth through clouds and darkness to monitor the effects of land use changes, including deforestation and can also detect oil spills in the oceans and help spot suspicious shipping activity.

Fake news

Neither the Government nor the space agency would be drawn on whether the new satellites will be used to track Santa’s epic sleigh ride this festive season — look and learn Amazon.

Talking of which, for the time being at least, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that Santa won’t be held up at the borders and won’t have to pay Brexit tariffs on the presents he will be delivering this Christmas.

From all at Croner-i, have a wonderful Christmas and New Year!

Last reviewed 20 December 2018