In the air we breathe, the water we drink and the products we buy, chemicals touch all of our daily lives. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are created in the sector, which makes chemicals fundamental to our future sustainable prosperity and crucial to delivering an ambitious innovation agenda and industrial strategy for the UK.
New ways of working
We are now in the transition period, also known as the implementation period, and there is good advice from the Health & Safety Executive as to how chemicals are being regulated and managed during this time. Essentially, citizens can feel safe and businesses can carry on as they are for now – but they should consider important preparations for new ways of working from 2021 onwards. However, UK technical leads on chemicals and politicians will no longer be sat at the table when decisions on continued use or restrictions on important chemicals are taken at EU level, and therefore UK influence is less than it used to be.
It is still not entirely clear what the UK government are seeking for future chemicals regulation, but we have already heard from Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the government is not seeking automatic alignment with EU regulations. The UK is not currently seeking to associate with the European Chemicals Agency and other agencies. This leads to concern from some in our community that divergence in regulation could lead to increased trading costs andbarriers, and a reduction in environmental standards and protections. At the moment the government are adamant that they are not seeking a race to the bottom on regulation – but only time will tell if economic pressures and new trading ambitions with the US and other parts of the world could lead them to accept trade-offs.
A sustainable chemicals revolution
A UK–EU trade deal in the area of chemicals and products will not be straightforward, given the regulatory technical complexities. The devil will be in the detail and it could be expected that it will take longer than the end of 2020 to achieve consensus on how the principles of managing chemicals in the environment, such as the precautionary principle, are to be implemented.
Looking to the future, we are involved in discussing the future of a UK chemicals strategy fit for the decades ahead. A new strategy has some dependencies on the outcome of the UK-EU future partnership, particularly in terms of regulation, but it will be developed to set a positive direction for the future.
At the RSC we’ve been working with our members and the wider scientific community to consider how a less polluted and more sustainable world can be achieved alongside an ambition – reflected in the UN Global Chemicals Outlook II report – for a doubling in growth for the chemicals sector.
This month, we’ve produced a forward-looking document, 'A chemicals strategy for a sustainable chemicals revolution', which provides a vision and ideas for discussion in the context of a UK chemicals strategy. Our ideas are structured around four core pillars of education, innovation, circular economy and regulation.
Positivity for the future
In essence, the positive future we see for the UK chemicals sector will be reliant upon scientific and technological innovation, high standards, scientific and cross-sector collaboration and global leadership – where the UK brings the very best science to the heart of both future industrial development and regulatory decision-making.
As we look to a future partnership with the EU and other international trade agreements, it is important that high harmonised standards are achieved at global level. This will be achieved through sharing study data and discussing complex scientific evidence through effective expert science debate.
Science diplomacy between the UK and EU, and globally, has never been more important, and we aim to play our part in achieving global harmonisation through sharing the best science and evidence.