It is finally happening. After 40 years of membership of the European Union, the UK is now on course for an extreme Brexit that will have serious implications for all of our lives. Many aspects of the UK’s departure from the EU have been pored over. But one of the most profoundly impacted areas, our environmental policy, has barely been discussed.
For those of us in the environment movement, a lack of attention doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Despite “the environment” actually meaning the air that we breathe, the water we drink and the food that eat, it’s rarely talked about in British politics. But, when it comes to Brexit, it is astonishing that the environmental consequences aren’t getting more of an airing.
Membership of the EU has been essential for environmental protection. The habitats and birds directives, for example, provide far stronger safeguards than any of our domestic laws by protecting specific species and the places they live. Moreover, challenges such as air pollution, sewage in the seas and threats to migrating species don’t queue up politely at national borders, waiting for their passports to be checked. By their very nature, environmental problems are trans-boundary. And from wildlife protections to energy efficiency, marine conservation to air pollution, the EU has been at the forefront of measures to keep our shared world clean and healthy.
To measure the effects of Brexit on our environment here in Britain, just look at the numbers of laws that will be affected. According to research by the House of Commons Library, which I’ve made public in a report published today, more than 1,100 of our environmental laws have been made at European level.
The government plans to simply cut and paste these laws into our statute books, but legal and environmental experts have been quick to point out that the transfer process will be far from simple, with the risk that protections will be lost, watered down or – perhaps most likely – ignored. Even the environment secretary, Andrea Leadsom, has admitted that up to a third of these laws won’t be easily transferable.
By leaving the EU we also risk creating a serious vacuum when it comes to enforcing compliance with environmental rules and targets. At present the European commission and European court of justice monitor and act upon breaches of legislation. With no similar system in place in the UK, these laws could become unenforceable.
And that’s the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the environmental challenges we face. Once the UK is outside the EU, there will be much greater probability of legislative change in the UK, more exposure to short-term political calculations, and a danger that investors will be wary of potentially higher risks. The relative attractiveness of the UK as a place for green investment is in danger of being further eroded.
More than 1000 environmental laws made at European level
Britain may be left behind when it comes to the development of existing EU law too. Take, for example, the EU’s chemicals policy known as Reach, amended no fewer than 38 times since its creation in 2006. Chemicals are a crucial British export – worth £24.7bn per year – with over half of all sales going to the EU, and we seriously risk jobs in that industry if a gap opens up between EU standards and our own.
Theresa May’s hasty courting of the United States in pursuit of a new free trade agreement should also be ringing alarm bells, as ministers may be tempted to yield to pressure to water down regulations in their haste to demonstrate the “success” of post-Brexit trade arrangements – such as those on genetically modified organisms, pesticides and animal hormones. US-style “bleached” chicken and hormone-treated beef could soon be making their way on to our supermarket shelves.
From the sheer number of laws to be transposed and the complexity of their enforcement, to the risks to green investment and the dangers of trade deals watering down our environmental protections, the challenges we face are clear. In the midst of the current political chaos, it would be easy for those on the right, who persist in their mistaken view of regulation as a “burden” on the free market, to attack the protections so many of us has fought so hard to win.
To avoid the worst, it will not be enough to trust the government’s warm words. We need a “green guarantee” that will deliver on Leadsom’s commitment “to be the first generation to leave our environment better than we found it”. This would take the shape of a coherent plan to maintain and enhance environmental standards, ambitions and drivers during and after the Brexit process.
Central to a green guarantee would be a commitment to continued membership of cross-border organisations such as the European Environment Agency, introducing key concepts like the precautionary principle into the UK statute – meaning that laws aren’t passed that risk environmental damage. It would also involve creating a new environment act to ensure no protections slip through the net as regulations are transferred to Britain.
With such a cocktail of threats facing our environment, it’s more important than ever that we stand up to defend and enhance the protections that we have. For the sake of our children and grandchildren – and to ensure that the long fought for progress we’ve seen isn’t reversed – it’s down to all of us to unite and push for policies that curtail the very real risks we face.
By Caroline Lucas. Source: The Guardian