EU environmental principles have helped us effectively address environmental issues in a systematic way. They have been fundamental to ensuring consistent decision-making, and therefore providing greater certainty for business and others, as well as ensuring that the way in which we protect our natural wealth and seek to rectify environmental harm is effective and targeted. Whether we are dealing with air pollution, water quality or the protection of our wildlife, EU environmental principles, often stemming from international conventions, have been integral to setting and enforcing environmental standards.
The potential of the UK exiting the EU means that we stand to lose the protection provided by those principles. Unless action is taken, we may find ourselves in the midst of what is now openly acknowledged as a twin climate and nature emergency without key tools that up until now have helped us relieve pressures on our environment.
One such key environmental principle is the principle of ‘rectification at source’. This principle provides us with the ‘how’ in terms of addressing environmental problems. It seeks to ensure that policies and laws regulate pollution at its source rather than remedy its effects.
This may sound obvious, but a simple example would be our approach to improving indoor air quality. One option for improving indoor air quality, if pollutants were found in high concentrations, would be to invest in air filters. But that only masks the problem and does not tackle the underlying issue – namely that the air is unhealthy. In other words, it does not address the root of the problem. If the principle of rectification at source was applied in this instance, the logical thing to do would be to identify the source (whether an object or activity) which pollutes the air and regulate that.
Simply put, this principle guides the regulation of pollution from its source rather than in the wider environment. It helps us prioritise how we should best address environmental harm, and what are the top actions which we should take to redress it.
The concept of rectifying pollution or environmental damage at source also helps us trace back damaging activities to the actual polluter too. This makes it easier for authorities to ensure that polluters pay for the environmental harm that they have caused.
If applied consistently, this principle can drive cleaner processes and products which are inherently good for the environment rather than approaches which treat the problem as or after it occurs.
The principle that environmental damage should be rectified at source is embedded in EU treaties and often reflected in domestic laws. However, to ensure that this principle, as well as all other EU environmental principles, have the same practical effect in Scotland even if Brexit materialises, we need those principles embedded in Scots law. This could be achieved through a dedicated Scottish Environment Act.