Meandering river

Risk Tracker

Most of the UK’s environmental protections stem from EU law and so could be changed as a result of Brexit. Greener UK has created this Risk Tracker to show which policy areas are more secure, and which are most at risk. We hope the UK government will go further than simply safeguarding protections, to take advantage of the great opportunity of restoring nature and our natural resources within a generation, as set out in the Greener UK vision.

Polling in December 2016 found that 80 per cent of the British public think the UK should have the same or stronger levels of environmental protection after we leave the EU. But pressure to agree new trade deals and remove regulations could lead the government to water down standards, leaving nature worse off and potentially threatening public health.

We have assigned traffic light ratings to each significant policy area, to indicate low (green), medium (amber) or high risk (red). Click on an icon for our analysis of the level of risk and to see the supporting evidence in the UK government’s statements and track record.

Key

Verdicts:

High risk

Medium risk

Low risk


Air pollution

Chemicals

Water

Waste & resources

Fisheries

Climate & energy

Farming & land use

Nature protection
Air pollution
Chemicals
Water
Waste & resources
Fisheries
Climate & energy
Farming & land use
Nature protection

After three tumultuous months in Westminster, it is difficult not to conclude that the environment is under greater threat than at any other point in the past three years. Hopes for a greener UK have been replaced by deep concerns and fears for the future of environmental protections.

There is a new prime minister and a new advisory team. While the prime minister has outlined a number of environmental aspirations, he has also made it clear that he wishes his government – and the country – to have the right to diverge from existing rules and regulations after Brexit. This, he wrote to European Council President Donald Tusk, is ‘the point’ of leaving the EU.

A central element of the government’s Brexit strategy is to remove the backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement, but the backstop contains at least some environmental commitments and points towards a close future UK-EU relationship. The prime minister says the UK will remain committed to ‘world-class’ environment standards post-Brexit, but provides no details of how these would be provided, why achieving them necessitates the UK’s divergence from the already high standards of the EU, or how maintaining world class standards can be squared with an apparent desire to rush through a trade agreement with the United States.

Severe doubts remain as to the true purpose of regulatory divergence.

Many of the new prime minister’s ministers and advisers are strong advocates of deregulation and a distant relationship with the EU. Many moderate voices within the governing party, who have historically supported green initiatives, have lost the whip for dissenting on Brexit policy. Many green-minded Conservative MPs are standing down at the next election, a considerable blow to the representation of environmental issues in parliament.

The flagship agriculture bill, which set out an ambitious and potentially transformative future for UK farming and land use, has been delayed, partly by the government’s unlawful decision to prorogue parliament. The same fate has befallen the much less progressive fisheries bill. Moreover, UK fisheries and fishers will be in a perilous position should there be a no-deal Brexit.

The government is still to publish its full proposals for the new environment bill. Shortly before the reshuffle Michael Gove was able to announce improvements to the draft bill, including powers for the new Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to initiate its own investigations and provide a free-to-use complaints system. It is, however, imperative that further improvements are made to the powers, independence and funding of the OEP, and that its remit is extended to cover climate change.

It is clear that if the UK leaves the EU without a deal on 31 October, the environment will be much less well protected in all four UK nations. The European Commission and European Court of Justice will cease to have a role in upholding environmental law, and the interim arrangements proposed so far are inadequate.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has highlighted the importance of climate change for his administration in his speeches domestically and at the recent G7 meeting in Biarritz. However, his apparent determination to exit with or without a deal by 31 October undermines this position. While the threat of a no-deal Brexit remains, the environment is at severe risk from harmful stockpiles of waste and threats to sustainable fishing levels, to lower chemical safety and an influx of poor quality food imports that would undermine UK farmers.

The impact of a potential no-deal Brexit, together with wider concerns about the direction of the government, lead us to conclude that there are extremely high risks to the environment across the board.

Read our PDF or click on the icons to explore each policy area.

The scale of the environmental crisis hit the headlines multiple times during this quarter. Authoritative reports on biodiversity and the feasibility of tackling climate change illustrated the need for urgent action, as did Sir David Attenborough’s TV documentaries on climate change and nature. Thousands of people took to the streets calling for a rapid political response, whether as school strikers or Extinction Rebellion activists, and polls indicated the wider public are deeply concerned.

The prime minister’s announcement that the government would follow the Committee on Climate Change’s advice to set a legal target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 was a huge moment. This is not only a positive legacy for Theresa May, but a major step forward in the UK’s attempts to tackle climate change and encourage other nations to follow suit. The next prime minister will be responsible for providing the policies that can get the country on track.

And yet, despite the net zero commitment, protections for the environment are set to be weaker than before Brexit. Rafts of statutory instruments (SIs) designed simply to “correct” EU law to make it operable in the UK have in fact resulted in significant legal changes that could unravel the effectiveness and oversight of existing environmental law. For example, SIs on fisheries drop the legal commitment to ensure that fishing limits are set at scientifically defined sustainable levels at or below maximum sustainable yield.

While the announcement of the first environment bill in a generation caused great excitement, analysis of the draft legislation by two select committees has found it to be seriously deficient, marking in some areas “a significant regression on current standards”. Flagship parliamentary bills on agriculture, fisheries and trade have now been on pause for months, with the National Audit Office raising particular concerns over the scope and timescale of the pilot for the proposed environmental land management scheme.

The Conservative party leadership contest, triggered by Theresa May’s resignation, is shrinking the time available for parliament to reach agreement on leaving the EU and pass the necessary legislation, and for the UK to undertake complex negotiations on the future EU-UK relationship.

A no-deal Brexit remains a strong possibility and therefore an immense concern, considering its potential impacts on efforts to tackle climate change, restore nature and create a healthier environment. Co-operative mechanisms with the EU would be lost immediately, while domestic replacements for vital EU functions would struggle to do the job. There would be the risk of hasty trade deals being agreed without due process, which could involve concessions harmful to the environment.

The new prime minister and cabinet must take forward and strengthen Theresa May’s green promises, and seek a relationship with the EU that enables close co-operation on the environment. Brexit must not delay the improvements to domestic law that are so desperately needed.

Read our PDF or click on the icons to explore each policy area.

With fewer than three weeks until Brexit, the latest edition of the tracker shows high risk ratings across the board.

The UK faces the increasingly ominous prospect of a cliff edge no deal exit. Greener UK has been unequivocal in its analysis: leaving without a deal poses potentially dire consequences for the environment, in the short and longer term. From chemicals, where a recent statutory instrument fell short of ensuring the same protections as the EU, to agriculture, where the US has been lobbying for lower UK food standards after Brexit, the absence of a strong legal and institutional framework is stark.

Meanwhile, the government’s plans for environmental governance and principles, as set out in the draft environment bill, would leave environmental protections weaker after Brexit. The bill’s proposed environment body lacks the powers and independence of the European Court of Justice and European Commission; the clauses on environmental principles are inadequate; and the bill would not be ready in time for a no-deal exit on 29 March. The government has stated it will provide a way for parliament to keep pace with the EU on environmental protections, yet its proposals do not guarantee continued improvement or prevent the weakening of standards.

Read our PDF or click on the icons to explore each policy area.

This update covers perhaps the most contentious stage yet of the Brexit process. As debate increased over what kind of future the UK should seek, Greener UK launched a set of ‘Brexit benchmarks’ to measure how far environmental standards will be protected and enhanced in the event of different Brexit outcomes.

These were particularly useful when the UK government published the Withdrawal Agreement and accompanying political statement on the future relationship in November. Our analysis found several welcome elements of the agreement, including its commitment not to backslide on standards and its requirement for an independent and robust green body or bodies that far exceed Defra’s current proposals.

Yet concerns and questions persist. The political statement says little about future co-operation and ambition, in areas such as nature protection. If the new governance body or bodies are weaker than current EU institutions, standards are likely to slip.

Risks remain, particularly that of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Leaving without a deal would have a hugely detrimental impact on the environment and must be challenged on that basis.

Read our PDF or click on the icons to explore each policy area.

The period between May and July 2018 was eventful, with consultations published on future environmental governance and fisheries. While gains were made on the government’s initial proposals for enforcing environmental laws after Brexit, Defra’s plans still fell short of existing protections. We believe that an unprecedented number of public responses were submitted to the department outlining concerns on scope and application, and we wait to see whether the government will act to address them.
The government also published its Brexit white paper in this period, laying out its approach to negotiations with the European Union. This contains a number of positive steps, including a common rulebook for all goods including agri-food and the intention to include a non-regression clause in the future relationship.

Yet the uncertainty surrounding the government’s Brexit policy, negotiation strategy and parliamentary support adds a further, anxious dimension to this analysis. There are significant concerns with the increasing possibility of a no deal Brexit, and the potentially disastrous consequences this would have on the environment. Greener UK’s paper on ‘no deal’, published in July, explored these fears in detail.

The prospect of a no deal Brexit should alarm anyone who cares for the UK’s environment and countryside. It will have deeply damaging consequences that will be felt for years to come. The Risk Tracker needs to be read in this context: almost all the concerns we raise are considerably amplified by the prospect of crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Read our PDF or click on the icons to explore each policy area.

This update period included the following events: agreement between UK and EU negotiators on a time bound transition period after 19 March 2019, with discussions on the nature of future agreement now about to get underway; the EU’s publication of guidelines for negotiations on the future relationship; committee stage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in the House of Lords; the publication of Defra’s farming policy consultation paper; several speeches by ministers including the chancellor and foreign secretary, and a speech by the prime minister at Mansion House, where she laid out her five tests for a final agreement with the EU.

Read our PDF or click on the icons to explore each policy area.

This update period included the following events: committee stage and third reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill; agreement between UK and EU negotiators that “sufficient progress” has been made to move to phase two of the Brexit negotiations; a major speech by Environment Secretary Michael Gove on farming; and a major speech by Prime Minister Theresa May to launch the 25 year environment plan.

Read our PDF or click on the icons to explore each policy area.

This update period included the following events: publication and second reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill; a major speech by environment secretary Michael Gove at the WWF headquarters; publication of several UK government position papers, including one on foreign policy and one on Northern Ireland and Ireland; and the prime minister’s third major speech on Brexit in Florence.

Read our PDF or click on the icons to explore each policy area.

This risk tracker, which covers the 12 months beginning with the EU referendum in June 2016, included the following events: the publication of a white paper on Brexit, outlining the UK government’s negotiating priorities in February 2017; the triggering of Article 50 in March 2017; the Great Repeal Bill White Paper published in March 2017; and the 2017 general election.

Read our PDF or click on the icons to explore each policy area.

EU baseline

We have outlined the environmental protections that the UK has had as a member of the EU as a starting point for measurement: see our EU baseline information.

Note that this tracker only covers policy in the UK (where it is not devolved) and England (where policy is governed from Westminster). It excludes areas of policy that are devolved to other UK countries.

Acknowledgements

The Greener UK Brexit Risk Tracker is edited by Amy Mount, head of the Greener UK unit at Green Alliance, and Benjamin Halfpenny, media and communications manager, Greener UK.

The following experts have contributed to the Tracker: Simon Alcock, Hatti Owens and Maudie Spurrier, ClientEarth (air quality); Kate Young, Michael Warhurst and Andrea Speranza, Chem Trust (chemicals); Chaitanya Kumar, Green Alliance (climate and energy); Claire Feniuk, Juliette Young and Tom Lancaster, RSPB (land use); Alistair Taylor, RSPB (nature); Dustin Benton and Libby Peake, Green Alliance (waste and resources); and Hannah Freeman, Tom Fewins and Ian Hepburn, WWT (water).