What a ‘no deal’ Brexit could mean for the environment

8560723065_849ddec297_b-e1511887137290.jpgShould we worry that the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal and in an atmosphere of acrimony and ill will? That was the question I recently asked Sir Ivan Rogers at his inaugural Henry Plumb Lecture for the National Farmers’ Union. His answer was not reassuring. The risk, he said, was “still quite high”. In January, Sir Ivan was forced to resign as the UK’s permanent representative to the EU for his unwelcome prediction that the Brexit negotiations would prove much more difficult than most people thought. His concerns have been vindicated and he is worth listening to.

Continued mutual misunderstanding
Sir Ivan believes that, while both sides want a deal, the chances of getting one are undermined by continued mutual misunderstanding. Time moves on, irritability grows and, if we do not get to talk about trade in December, the value of a transition deal will reduce as businesses will already have made plans for a ‘no deal’. Those UK politicians who positively want us to crash out, or who do not regard the prospect as catastrophic, will grow in influence. Even if we do move to phase two of the negotiations in December (which is looking more likely than it did a week ago) there is plenty of scope for things to go wrong. Trade talks, Sir Ivan warns, can turn nasty very quickly.

In my last blog, I wrote about the failure of the British political class over many years to understand or even try to understand how the EU works. This has never been more evident than in the current negotiations and the media commentary on them. In particular, the UK keeps appealing over the head of Michel Barnier and the Commission’s negotiators to national leaders. But Brexit is not a top concern for any of the EU27 member states, with the exception of Ireland. Their national leaders have their own problems. The hope that Angela Merkel will ride to the rescue is particularly fanciful. There is no evidence that Mrs Merkel would want to cut a favourable deal with the UK, even if she could.

Now the government wants to deny itself the flexibility it may need by setting in statute the time and date of our departure from the EU: 11pm GMT, 29 March 2019. This is a matter of political calculation and it can be argued that to secure a good deal, we must persuade the EU that we are willing to jump over the cliff edge. But there is a danger that we will be allowed to jump.

The consequences of a no deal Brexit
The likely consequences of a no deal Brexit are explored in a good, though gloomy paper from the research group, UK in a Changing Europe. There are, of course, variants on no deal and the Institute for Government has set out various options, including an “amicable no deal”. Here, I will discuss what a worst case would mean for the environment, partly because it is arguable that “there’s no amicable no deal”, and partly because some of our newspapers and politicians seem to be willing on a harsh and sudden break from the EU.

If the negotiations fail, there will be an immediate hard border with the EU. Overnight, we will go from being a member of the EU and the single market to a third country like, say, Yemen (Sir Ivan’s example). This will have an obvious impact on the economy. Tom Burke argues that we will be “exposed to an economic hurricane” and that economic pressures will “wash away all the warm words and environmental ambition we have been promised in a tsunami of deregulation”. Some argue that this is precisely why some influential Brexiteers are so keen on a hard Brexit: they want a low tax, low regulation future, not one which broadly follows the European social and economic model.

This is speculation, but one can point to some immediate and tangible likely consequences for the environment and the countryside of a no deal Brexit.

New lorry parks in Kent
There is a risk that countryside around our ports will be turned into huge lorry parks. This is a particular threat to Kent, as five million trucks pass through Dover each year. EU trucks are checked electronically, which takes about 40 seconds. Non-EU trucks are physically checked, which takes around 40 minutes. It only takes a couple of hours’ delay at Dover (or, indeed, at Calais or other EU ports) to cause a huge backlog of trucks. Setting up physical customs checks at UK ports will have a big environmental cost in terms of air pollution and loss of countryside, as well as a large economic cost. The government has abandoned plans for a lorry park in Kent, but it will need much more than one lorry park if physical checks of lorries are introduced between the UK and the continent.

The waste problem
We risk having to open new landfill sites or build incinerators to take the 3.6 million tonnes of waste that the UK currently sends every year to EU countries. The waste problem is set to grow worse in any case because, in a few weeks, China will refuse to accept our low quality recyclable waste.

Threat to upland farming
The imposition of tariffs of over 50 per cent on exported lamb and beef could have a severe impact on already hard-pressed farming businesses, particularly in the uplands. Some environmentalists want to rewild these areas, but the consequences of sudden abandonment are unlikely to be environmentally positive and would certainly be socially harmful.

In the longer term, dropping out of REACH, the system for regulating European chemicals could be environmentally harmful, and will certainly be economically damaging. And dropping out of the internal energy market and the Emissions Trading Scheme will put up energy prices and set back progress on renewables.

Environmentalists understand that Brexit offers opportunities to do things better. We have seen nature decline in the UK throughout our period of EU membership, sometimes as a direct result of EU policies. “Taking back control” really does present the chance for big improvements in farming, fisheries, some aspects of environmental governance and in other areas. Michael Gove, a leading Brexiteer, is determined to prove that Brexit will be good for the UK environment and that is encouraging.

But all the good things that could follow our departure from the EU assume a reasonably orderly exit. The environmental consequences of crashing out will be severe. Many of them will be felt most severely in those areas of the country that voted to leave. We need to challenge those politicians who, on the basis minimal thinking and excessive faith, pretend that no deal will be pain free.


[Photo by Drive-By Photography on Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA]


  • Pingback: What a ‘no deal’ Brexit could mean for the environment — Inside track | World4Justice : NOW! Lobby Forum.

  • Eve Kendall Wolfe

    I’ve been hearing the phrase ‘crash out’ a lot in the last few days. It’s not a terminology I find useful or constructive. And that’s the point – leaving the EU has to be regarded as – and made into – something constructive, while words such as ‘crash’ are exclusively destructive.

    • Thanks, for your comment. My blog acknowledges that “Brexit offers opportunities to do things better” – but not if we leave the EU without a deal and with ill-feeling on both sides. No sensible person should want the UK to “crash out”, but there are clearly some people in the UK who would prefer this to too close a future relationship between the UK and the EU. There also seem to be some on the EU27 side who want to show that there can be no bright future for a country that leaves the EU. There is therefore a danger that the EU will “crash out” of the EU through a combination of ill will and misunderstanding. And if we do, there will be serious environmental consequences.

  • Why our voices must be heard:

    Light touch regulation? The issues are deep, systemically problematic, complex, complicated and there are unknowns but the discussion could be essential.

    Sir John Bell
    There are issues coming under the environmental umbrella that don’t seem to be receiving the attention they deserve i.e. ecological GM cross contamination issues and more. There is no scientific consensus on safety and a discussion with establishment academia must be had.

    “We need light touch regulation similar to Switzerland so that Britain can become a global leader in life sciences, data, genomics, regenerative medicine and other innovation-based fields. State aid and industrial policy should be routine. The academic sector should be enhanced, with universities encouraged to pursue pure subjects while expanding in those areas that allow for application, such as engineering.”

    “Regulatory constraints from the EU do not relate only to clinical trials. The European approach to the use of data for research purposes is excessively restrictive, a far cry from the UK framework laid out in July by Dame Fiona Caldicott. Similarly, in stem cell research Britain stands almost alone in Europe in its approach to the field, free of restrictive regulation. Much the same could be said of the research and application of genetically modified crops, vaccines or genomics. Being constrained by EU restrictive regulation in the future is a clear liability. Add to this the constraints on state aid, which inhibit the UK’s ability to support the science-based industries more directly as the Americans do, and we can see that a future in which British scientists collaborate with their European counterparts but are not bound by EU regulation looks tempting.” Sir John Bell.

    Read the full comment by Sir John Bell here: https://medium.com/oxford-university/brexit-offers-opportunities-for-uk-scientists-2cb7df858d9a

    Sir John Bell can be contacted here: https://www.medsci.ox.ac.uk/support-services/people/regius

    Briefing: https://www.gmfreeze.org/publications/brexit-and-gm/

    The science discussion: https://www.testbiotech.org/en/limits-to-biotech

    Food Sovereignty discussion: https://cagj.org/agra-watch/

    Parliamentary discussion: https://agroecology-appg.org/

    Genetic Heritage? Please read about NAGS here:
    National Association for Genetic Safety (NAGS)
    Preservation of unique varieties of crop plants and livestock breeds is the key to sustainable agricultural development. Today, the genetic heritage of Russia is under threat. NAGS pays special attention to the preservation of Russian livestock breeds and crop varieties. NAGS also actively supports ratification of the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety by Russia.

    Further reading:
    If you plan to cite the Gene Drive Files, please see our note on credit and citations.
    Addressing conflict of interest issues in the CBD, its Protocols and subsidiary bodies
    Communication from:
    African Centre for Biodiversity
    Corporate Europe Observatory
    ETC Group
    Friends of the Earth U.S.
    Heinrich Boell Foundation
    Sustainability Council of New Zealand
    Third World Network

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s