Charlotte Burns: Little substance to promises of a green future

GOOD intentions pave a road to a certain somewhere. What people want to do, and what they actually do, don't always match. That goes for governments, too.

Flamborough Head and its seabird colonies could be put at risk by a weakening of environmental legislation after Brexit.
Flamborough Head and its seabird colonies could be put at risk by a weakening of environmental legislation after Brexit.

In January, the Government outlined a 25 Year Environment Plan. Environment Secretary Michael Gove and Prime Minister Theresa May promised a ‘green’ Brexit. But will it be?

Friends of the Earth commissioned me, along with two colleagues, to analyse the plans on offer. I’m afraid we found a green Brexit increasingly unlikely, and that nature protection is particularly at risk.

We also identify risks for chemicals, waste, agri-environment, fisheries, water and air quality. In short, all environmental policy sectors are vulnerable depending upon the type of Brexit the Government delivers.

Our detailed evaluation analyses eight policy sectors under five different Brexit scenarios: the Norwegian, Turkish, Canadian and no deal (planned and chaotic) options. We find that nature protection policies are especially vulnerable under all scenarios.

This matters, especially here in beautiful Yorkshire, with key species and sites protected by EU legislation: the seabird colonies of Flamborough Head; the high blanket peatbogs of the Pennines; the limestone pavements of the Dales.

Protecting our environment can deliver economic, health, and ecological benefits.

Our report suggests that a chaotic no-deal Brexit, with no proper policy infrastructure, is the most dangerous scenario. This is because we may become vulnerable to demands for trade deals with other states, no matter the cost. Michael Gove’s promises that welfare and food product standards won’t be weakened are unlikely to be delivered in such a situation.

We suggest that one solution is an environmental non-regression principle for post-Brexit trade agreements. These are becoming standard practice – recent EU trade deals have included them.

Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, has said that inclusion of this principle will be an EU priority, but there’s no matching UK commitment.

The Government claims that the key to a ‘green’ Brexit is the copy and paste exercise in the EU Withdrawal Bill that transfers EU laws onto UK statute books. However, former environment secretary Andrea Leadsom claimed that at least a third of the EU’s environmental laws will be challenging to copy over. All EU law is underpinned by the ‘polluter pays’ and ‘precautionary principles’, which are not being copied over.

EU membership also means governments can be fined if they don’t implement policy properly. It’s why we enjoy clean beaches today. The UK must also provide information on how clean our waterways and beaches are.

In order to replace these EU monitoring and enforcement functions, the Government has said it will set up an environmental watchdog. This body needs to be well resourced, with prosecutorial powers, but it looks increasingly unlikely. Just last weekend the Daily Telegraph reported that there is opposition from the Chancellor and the Department of Transport on the grounds of ‘red tape’.

The Government has now brought forward a number of policy documents and consultations on how it plans to deal with the environmental fallout from Brexit.

But these lack detail. Even where concrete commitments are made they generally offer weaker protection than that currently provided under EU law.

We see the re-emergence of the bad habits of British environmental policy that were common when the UK was known as the Dirty Man of Europe. Escape-hatch clauses are being written into policy commitments, providing excuses right from the start. The 25 Year Environment Plan includes commitments watered down by wording stating targets will be met ‘where feasible’, where practicable’ and taking a ‘balance of interests’ into account.

On water quality, the EU’s water framework directive requires all UK water bodies to be at a good status by 2027.

The 25 Year Environment 
Plan commits the UK to 
achieve a natural state for three-quarters of water bodies ‘as soon as is practicable’. Spot the difference?

Those of us who have worked in the field for a long time know where these appeals to practicability lead – to economic interests trumping environmental concerns.

Some say not to worry: international environmental agreements provide a safety net. However, the level of environmental protection offered is lower, with limited or no enforcement structures.

Overall, then our analysis suggests that the UK environment is at risk. On-going advocacy and scrutiny over 
the long term will be needed for the Government’s promised green Brexit to be more than 
just a myth.

Professor Charlotte Burns, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Politics, is the author of a newly-published report on Brexit and the environment.