UK ‘used to be a leader on climate’, lament European lawmakers

London: European lawmakers have lamented the UK’s decision to weaken environmental rules since leaving the EU, after the Guardian revealed it is falling behind in almost every policy area.

One Green group MEP said the findings were “tragic” while a centre-right MEP said the divergences were “particularly bad” for companies that want to do business on both sides of the Channel.

Grace O’Sullivan, an Irish MEP with the Green group, said the backsliding was not surprising given the number of promises the UK government had broken since former environment secretary Michael Gove committed to a “green” Brexit. “While we are no angels in the EU for environmental protection, we have made significant steps in the last few years updating and improving our legislation.”

The Guardian analysis found that since Brexit, the UK has weakened its environment rules in key policy areas, from chemicals to climate. Among other measures, the EU has done more than the UK to ban harmful pesticides and substances, tax carbon emissions on imported goods, regulate batteries, and clean the air.

The two economies are expected to grow further apart in environmental ambition as the EU brings in new rules on industrial emissions, outdoor air quality, critical raw materials, water treatment, and electrical waste recycling.

O’Sullivan highlighted the UK’s worsening water quality standards as a “particularly troubling” example of divergence. “In Ireland, where previous governments have failed to prioritise the environment, EU legislation like this was instrumental in obliging the government to act to protect its own people from poor water treatment practices.”

She added: “Both British and Irish people will bear the brunt of the UK government’s poor environmental record, as the recent collapse in water quality in Northern Ireland’s Lough Neagh demonstrated.”

Another divergence in policy is an EU effort to help those less able to pay the costs of the energy transition. The EU has legislated for a social climate fund to finance concrete measures that alleviate energy and transport poverty, as the remaining 27 member states move toward net zero emissions by 2050. So far, no comparable fund exists in the UK.

Peter Liese, a German MEP and environment spokesperson for the centre-right European People’s party (EPP) group, said: “A big problem, in my view, is that the UK has not [got] something like a social climate fund. While we need to be ambitious in climate policy, we need to help those that are not able to pay for the transition themselves in a targeted way.”

He added: “I very much regret the divergence in environmental rules between the EU and UK.”

The UK government has not tracked its divergence from EU environment policy, leaving businesses and green groups to guess at the breadth and depth of the shift. But the Guardian analysis of data from the Institute For European Environmental Policy found the country was falling behind in almost every aspect of environmental regulation.

Petros Kokkalis, a Greek MEP with the Left group, cited the EU tightening air quality rules as the UK weakened them as evidence that its “departure from our bloc is having a profound impact on every aspect of everyday life”. He said: “It is rather worrying to see that the UK is not following the same path. And it is even more worrying to realise that it is the citizens and their health that will bear the consequences.”

Mohammed Chaim, a Dutch MEP with the centre-left Socialists and Democrats group, said recent EU legislation “clearly shows more ambition” than the UK, but cautioned that regulation was only one driver of the energy transition. He said: “Industry knows that the only way to preserve competitiveness within the continent, including the UK, is going green.”

Still, he added, among European countries the UK had always been at the forefront in decarbonising its industry. “The UK used to be a leader when it came to climate.”