The Brexit white paper and the environment: a positive shift in language but big risks are still there

EU UK Big ben.jpgThis blog was written by Stephen Hinchley, principal policy officer at the RSPB.

Environmentalists in the UK and the EU now have something to work with following the government’s proposals, published in a white paper yesterday, to include environmental co-operation in the UK’s future partnership agreement with the EU.

Significantly, it proposes that both the UK and the EU “should commit to non-regression of environmental standards” and there should be a “reciprocal commitment to ongoing environmental co-operation, including in international fora.”

These are important steps forward.  The government’s previous white paper on the future relationship, in February 2017, made no mention of environmental co-operation and ministers have repeatedly tended to emphasise domestic commitments, rather than the benefits of working in partnership with the EU in tackling shared environment challenges.

Why is this significant?  As most environmental challenges are global in nature and have no respect for national borders, progress often requires countries to come together to make commitments and agree processes and reporting mechanisms to deliver tangible and measureable environmental outcomes, eg the Paris climate agreement. This is even more important when countries are neighbours, like the UK and EU member states, when either the sources or impacts of environmental challenges have strong transboundary dimensions, such as air quality, or when wildlife moves across boundaries, like migratory birds, marine mammals and invasive species.

A welcome change in rhetoric
The government’s proposal for “ongoing environmental co-operation” should be warmly welcomed in the context of the demonstrable need for both the EU and the UK to step up in 2020, when they need to agree a new set of international targets to halt the loss of biodiversity. They also need to work together to ensure these are binding and drive the radical reform of land use policies, which is something Greener UK hopes the four governments of the UK will commit to.

However, whilst this is a positive change in rhetoric – and a timely one too, with negotiations on the future relationship beginning in earnest next week – how we might co-operate, and in what areas, remains ambiguous.

Whilst the EU has expressed interest in discussing binding commitments, at a minimum, in relation to nature protection, air and water quality, waste management, industrial emissions and some process requirements like impact assessments, the white paper is not specific. On a hopeful interpretation, this could mean all environmental policy areas would be covered.

But what about the EEA?
To date, the government has also made no reference to the European Environment Agency (EEA).  The EEA’s primary purpose is to support environmental improvement through the provision of timely and high quality information and analysis, and it already has many non-EU members including Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and Turkey.  An immediate and welcome demonstration of intent for meaningful environmental co-operation would be a commitment to maintain UK membership of the EEA.

Finally, in terms of including reciprocal commitments to non-regression and continued high environmental standards, as Greener UK proposes, one of the biggest questions is how these will be enforced post-Brexit.  If the UK is no longer under the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), one of the biggest Brexit risks is that there will be no effective means to hold governments and public bodies to account for their performance against environmental commitments.

The threat of fines imposed by the ECJ, sometimes running in to millions of pounds, has provided a powerful incentive for the UK to clean up sewage in the Thames and to protect threatened species and habitats.  Despite welcome acknowledgement of the ‘governance gap’ by ministers in Westminster, Scotland and Wales, and promises to address it, we don’t yet have full confidence that environmental standards will be enforced as rigorously in all four countries of the UK the day after Brexit as they were the day before. Will the governments step up and work together, with urgency, to ensure good environment governance and enforcement is in place before Brexit?

When the negotiating teams meet next week, after the exchange of pleasantries over orange juice and croissants, this is surely a question that will be asked.

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