Time to settle the question: how green a Brexit will we get?
From the start of next year, the UK will no longer be bound by European Union laws or subject to the European Court of Justice. We will leave the single market and the customs union; replace the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy with national policies; and cease to be a member of the European Chemicals Agency.
The UK has already left the EU, but only when the transition period ends will we really be on our own. How are we doing? Will it be the green Brexit promised by ministers?
In 2018, Greener UK set out four green benchmarks for Brexit:
- higher environmental standards in all four countries of the UK
- effective systems of enforcement of environmental law
- mechanisms for effective co-operation on the environment both with the EU and within the UK
- trade policy that promotes high environmental standards and is responsive to engagement by civil society.
The benchmarks set a high bar, but not higher than the government has set itself. Ministers have never said, “we’ll be no worse than the EU on the environment”. The promise has always been to do better outside the EU.
Higher environmental standards
For three years Greener UK has tracked the risks and potential benefits of Brexit across eight policy areas: air pollution, chemicals, climate and energy, farming and land use, fisheries, nature, waste and resources, and water. The risks are now ranked as high in every area, at least as regards the responsibilities of the UK government (environment and agriculture policy are devolved, so the situation varies across the four nations of the UK).
Crucially, the government refuses to put into law its manifesto promise not to compromise on environmental standards. A legal commitment to non-regression from current standards would not preclude achieving them in different ways, or going further. So why is the government digging in its heels? She is hardly a neutral observer, but Nicola Sturgeon is not alone in concluding that it is because it wants “to adopt lower standards than the EU”.
The risk tracker details where policies appear to be going in the wrong direction. On chemicals, the UK is leaving the genuinely world beating EU system and replacing it with one that will be inferior. On fisheries, it is far from clear that the UK and EU will reach an agreement that protects shared fish stocks. On nature, the environment bill, one described by the prime minister as “a lodestar by which we will guide our country towards a cleaner, and greener future”, has dropped down the list of government priorities. And so on.
What is at issue is risk and the direction of travel. Good things can still happen – a strong environment , a fisheries deal with sustainability at its heart – and in one area, waste and resources, the government has shown it can change direction. Having looked set to renege on a promise to sign up to the tough recycling targets in the EU’s circular economy package, at the end of last month it U-turned and agreed to legislate.
All is not lost on standards, provided the case is strongly and publicly made.
In all four countries of the UK, there will be a big governance gap from 1 January. In none will new environmental watchdogs be as strong or independent as the European Court of Justice. This was inevitable as it is impossible for a nation to replicate the power and independence of a supra-national authority. But greater efforts should have been made to get stronger watchdogs in place in time. It is disappointing that they will not be ready for 1 January despite the governance gap being identified three years ago.
The chairs of England’s Office for Environmental Protection and the Scottish watchdog Environmental Standards Scotland are now being recruited. This is good news, but they will be accountable to ministers. That could make policing the governments a little awkward.
Co-operation on the environment between the UK and EU and within the UK
A year ago, there still seemed some hope that the UK and EU could forge a close future environmental partnership. After all, both sides recognise the severity of the climate and ecological crises and the crucial need for international co-operation to tackle them. But instead of that, the two sides are wrangling even over whether to include a commitment to climate action in the future relationship agreement. According to the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, the UK is also refusing to commit not to lower standards. This is not necessarily because the UK wants lower standards. It may just be an assertion of sovereignty. But it is worrying.
As for co-operation within the UK, this has been absent from the start in most areas of policy. The latest flashpoint is the UK government’s plans to safeguard the UK internal market, which have been interpreted as a power grab and a backward step for devolution in both Wales and Scotland .
Trade policy that promotes high environmental standards
The government promises to respect high standards in its trade negotiations but refuses to do anything that would make that promise believable. It won’t legislate for non-regression or negotiate with the EU on a level playing field. Under pressure, it set up a trade and agriculture commission, but without any representation from environment, consumer or animal welfare groups. Likewise, the recent call for expressions of interest in membership of the Strategic Trade Advisory Group appears designed to exclude any voice from the environment sector. It is hard to believe that that international trade secretary, Liz Truss, cares a fig for the environment.
It is not too late for the government to make good on its promises. Ministers’ rhetoric is good. In many cases, their intentions are good too. But there is an inescapable sense that progress on the environment has stalled or is going backwards. The prospect of the UK setting a global ‘gold standard’ for environmental leadership outside the EU seems far distant. The next few months will settle the question of how green a Brexit we are going to get.
[Photo sourced from Pxhere]