Brexit presents challenges and opportunities to tackle nitrate pollution ‘time bomb’, say MPs

Leaving the European Union presents the UK with both challenges and opportunities in its efforts to reduce pollution from nitrates, says the Environmental Audit Committee in a new report published today.

High levels of nitrates, used frequently in farming fertilisers, cause oxygen depletion in water which is harmful to humans and biodiversity. Their overuse in the past has led to a nitrate ‘time bomb’ which is still working its way through into many of our ground water sources, from which much of our drinking water is drawn. Nitrates are connected to wider nitrogen pollution because of the nitrogen cycle, including nitrogen oxides and ammonia. These powerful air pollutants can raise acidity levels when deposited in water and soil. 

While regulation of water and air quality is based on EU legislation and mainly devolved, today’s report, UK Progress on Reducing Nitrate Pollution, re-iterates the Committee’s concerns about the dangers of ‘a governance gap’, whereby zombie EU legislation would be transposed into UK law but remain divorced from EU institutions that monitor, update, administer and ensure compliance. MPs are particularly concerned about the danger that existing standards, including the target of water bodies reaching a good status by 2027, are weakened. The report concludes it is important that the replacement for the Common Agricultural Policy post-Brexit does not undermine the “polluter pays” principle. The Committee awaits the Government’s proposals to resolve the issue of water and air quality alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

MPs find that leaving the EU offers a potential opportunity for a joined-up approach, which aligns water, air and soil quality regulations and regulators. It would go further than existing standards wherever possible, under a new single independent environmental watchdog filling the gap left by the European Commission, European Environment Agency and European Court of Justice. The Committee calls for this to be reflected in the Environment Bill due to be published before the end this year. 

Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh MP, said: “One of the biggest sources of nitrate pollution is farming, through artificial fertilisers and animal waste getting into water supplies, as well as domestic and industrial sewage. Historic over use of artificial fertiliser has led to nitrate pollution in many of our groundwater sources, with some citing the threat of the so-called nitrate ‘time bomb’.

“If we are to deal effectively with the challenges nitrates pose to the environment, it is vital that, if Brexit happens, we do not end up with zombie legislation where EU laws apply but there is no oversight or governance. Targets on water quality must be enforced and any new UK legislation should not undermine the important principle that those causing the pollution are the ones who pay.

“If we leave the European Union, there could be a new joined-up approach that can bring about standards that are even higher than those currently in place. Only by supporting farmers to invest in infrastructure and processes to reduce artificial fertiliser application will we see better, more sustainable, environmental outcomes. We will be scrutinising the Environment Bill closely.”

Key conclusions and recommendations:

  • The Environment Agency lacks the resources it needs to ensure compliance with the existing regime and rules. There is a danger that a poorly regulated and resourced regime discourages farmers and others to comply if they see neighbours flout the rules without penalty. A lack of compliance also risks public money, especially in the form of cross compliance payments, being misused. A lack of resources will also undermine the credibility of the Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment, and of any new system and the compliance body that will oversee it if the UK leaves the EU. The Government needs to bring forward plans and costings to indicate that it has sufficient resources to enable effective enforcement and oversight.
  • The Government should conduct an assessment to understand how future pressures, such as population growth and climate change, might impact upon air, water and soil quality. This could include working with the Committee on Climate Change to develop models and scenarios to help guide the Government’s nitrogen reduction strategy, as it has for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Committee could also help the Government ensure that such a strategy was aligned with other objectives such as delivering the Government’s Carbon Budgets.
  • Though progress has been made in reducing nitrates in surface waters, levels are high in some areas, especially in parts of England, and we still lag behind a number of our European neighbours. The Committee is particularly disturbed to hear of the high levels of nitrate pollution in some of our groundwater sources, which supply nearly a third of our drinking water, which might not peak for another 60 years. Water companies are having to invest substantial sums of money in nitrate removal and water blending plants, the costs of which are being passed on to customers through water bills.
  • The Government should, as part of its upcoming environmental legislation, and as the Committee argued in our report on the 25 Year Environment Plan, produce robust interim targets and milestones to underpin legally binding targets on water quality. If there is any weakening of EU or international water quality targets, the Government needs to provide an explanation of where they are weaker and why. The Committee looks forward to seeing the metrics for nitrate and water pollution by the end of the year, which we hope will match or exceed those set out in the Water Framework Directive.
  • The Government should consider whether it can better align policies on water, air and soil and the interaction between nitrogen in its various forms so that actions in one area do not have a negative impact in another. For instance, it needs to ensure that greater use of anaerobic digestion to reduce nutrients leaching into war sources does not lead to higher ammonia emissions, which have increased over the last two years. Regulations and regulators should be fully joined up across agriculture, water and air quality and is reflected in future agricultural payments based on the provision of ‘public goods’.  For such a joined-up approach to work effectively if the UK leaves the EU, it is imperative that an independent overarching body can oversee these overlapping areas and enforce compliance. This further strengthens the Committee’s case for an Environmental Enforcement and Audit Office (EEAO).

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