This post is by Gemma Wells, RSPB’s Brexit project officer.
It’s been a tumultuous time in UK politics since we voted to leave the EU a year ago. The overriding mood of the year has been uncertainty which has permeated all sectors, not least the environmental sector.
Since the majority of the laws, principles and resources that protect our environment come via the EU, the Brexit process poses a risk to our current levels of protection.
However, risk is only one side of the coin. There are also opportunities in the form of improvements that could lead to better outcomes. Such an example was mentioned in the Queen’s speech on Wednesday: a new Agriculture Bill to replace the Common Agricultural Policy. If this ensures more public benefit for public money, it will be a welcome change.
Where is environment on the Brexit agenda?
But the environmental consequences have not been high on the Brexit agenda so far. Think how many times you’ve heard trade or immigration discussed in the media recently. Now, how about coverage of the impact of Brexit on climate change or biodiversity?
And EU environmental policies are incredibly complex, spanning broad areas from nature protection to fisheries, waste to energy. They are made up of numerous, interlinking laws and are often governed by different expert bodies.
If only there was some way of keeping track of it all: a way of properly understanding what we stand to lose, where the opportunities are and what is happening to it as we Brexit.
Now, thankfully, there is.
Greener UK’s Brexit Risk Tracker
Greener UK has created a Brexit Risk Tracker, a tool for monitoring the UK government’s choices around safeguarding environmental protections throughout the Brexit process. Researched and written by experts from Greener UK partner organisations, it helps to sift through the confusion with clear traffic light ratings indicating how the government is managing key environmental issues around Brexit and whether it is really delivering on its promise to leave the environment in a better state than it found it.
The tracker has been released exactly a year since the EU referendum and its initial analysis reveals some interesting results.
Most categories – farming and land use, fisheries, nature, waste and resources, and water – are graded amber, medium risk. Over the past year the government has made positive noises around all of these areas, but the real test will lie in the content of the bills that were announced in the Queen’s speech: particularly the Agriculture Bill, Fisheries Bill, Trade Bill and, of course, the Repeal Bill.
Climate and energy receives the tracker’s only green, low risk, rating. This is thanks to the government taking positive steps towards staying in the EU’s energy market and reiterating its commitment to a Climate Change Act.
Air quality and chemicals are currently most at risk
The most worrying categories are air quality and chemicals, which have a red, high risk rating.
The UK, already in breach of EU air quality standards, has shown little commitment to improvement, raising the concern that Westminster will simply weaken targets to achieve them.
On the risks around hazardous chemicals, such as those that bioaccumulate or disrupt hormones, Dr Michael Warhurst, executive director of CHEM Trust, which carried out the analysis for Greener UK, stresses that the EU’s regulation system, REACH, is the best in the world. It recently banned problematic chemicals in products as diverse as till receipts and waterproof coats. It would be impossible for the UK to copy the huge and complex REACH system, and the government has not only not committed to staying within it, but government ministers have also recently suggested that we should weaken EU chemicals laws.
We will be using the Risk Tracker to hold the government to account on its environmental decisions throughout the Brexit process. The new secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, Michael Gove, has shown promising signs already, pledging not just to protect the environment as it is, but to enhance our level of protection once we are outside the EU.
It is our hope that, over the coming months, as Brexit negotiations progress, the government will be much more vocal about its ambitions for our environment, alongside its other negotiation priorities, and we will begin to see the red and amber tracker ratings turning green. For the good of everyone in the UK, now and in the future, we want to make sure that we leave the EU as an active, world-leader in environmental protection.