UK environmental standards facing greatest threat since start of Brexit process
Prospect of no deal sees UK at high risk of weaker protections, analysis finds, while proposals to keep pace with EU standards do not go far enough
New analysis from major environmental organisations has found that the government is on the brink of failing to deliver its ‘green Brexit’ pledge to protect and enhance environmental standards (1).
For the first time since the EU referendum, the Greener UK coalition concludes in its Brexit Risk Tracker that all areas of the environment – from chemical safety to wildlife and air quality – are at “high risk” of being less protected after Brexit. The prospect of a no deal Brexit is overshadowing significant progress in some areas, such as ambitious reforms to farm payments. Proposals announced last week failed to assuage concerns that the UK could pivot away from EU standards and towards the United States.
Why is the environment facing such significant risks?
The coalition’s ‘Risk Tracker’ concludes that a cliff edge no deal would have dire consequences for the environment in the short term. For example, the UK’s proposed system for regulating chemicals found in everyday products could receive 16% of the funding seen at EU level; layers of expert advice to inform decisions on potential carcinogens and hormone disruptors have been stripped away; and there is no commitment to keep pace with the EU’s high standards (2).
There are fears that economic turbulence in the longer term could lead to pressure on existing standards and regulations as the UK seeks trade deals with countries such as the US. Recent comments from US officials have raised fears about a pivot away from the EU’s high standards and towards lower quality, cheaper imports such as chlorinated chicken (3). This would lower food hygiene and animal welfare standards, and put undue competitive pressure on UK farmers.
Assurances fall short
The coalition is also concerned about government assurances on the future strength of environmental protections. Last week the government stated that it will provide a way for parliament to keep pace with new EU policies (4). However, the proposals, which involve ministers reporting to parliament on new EU policies, do not guarantee continued improvement or prevent the weakening of standards.
Finally, the coalition is urging the government to strengthen domestic proposals if it wants to uphold its environmental promises (5). The government’s plans for a new ‘green watchdog’ omit climate change from its scope and do not match the powers and independence of EU institutions, let alone deliver the government’s ambition for a ‘world-leading body to give the environment a voice and hold the powerful to account’ (6).
Amy Mount of the Greener UK coalition said:
“The government has said it will protect and enhance standards, and in areas such as farming it has taken some very positive steps. However, faced with the imminent threat of no deal, this vision of a healthier environment is in real danger.
“Proposals to consider mirroring EU standards are also not enough to quell fears that our future could lie more with chlorinated chicken and weaker chemical safety than with the strong protections we currently enjoy.
“We urge the government to rule out no deal, and to fulfil its promises of world-leading environmental laws and close co-operation with the EU after Brexit.”
Notes to editors
(1) Greener UK, Brexit risk tracker 7: December 2018 – February 2019, March 2019.
(2) ibid, ‘Chemicals’.
(3) BBC News, UK-US trade deal: Envoy attacks 'myths' about US farming, 2 March 2019.
(4) Business Secretary Greg Clark, in the House of Commons, Hansard, Leaving the EU: Protection for Workers, 6 March 2019.
(5) Ruth Chambers (Greener UK), Inside Track, The Environment Bill: strong ambitions, but the get out clauses need to go, 20 December 2018.
(6) Environment Secretary Michael Gove, The Daily Telegraph, Outside the EU we will become the world-leading curator of the most precious asset of all: our planet, 12 November 2017.
Greener UK is a coalition of 14 environmental organisations working on Brexit. It includes RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts, National Trust, ClientEarth, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.