A Green Brexit In Sight?



As the clock is ticking down toward exit day, uncertainties loom about whether the Government’s promise to deliver a green Brexit will in fact happen. In this explainer, we take a look at what EU membership has meant for the environment and whether a green brexit is indeed possible.

What has our membership of the EU meant for the protection of the environment?

Over 80% of environmental laws originate from the EU- laws and principles that ensure protection of our wildlife, clean beaches, against dangerous chemicals and against air pollution. EU institutions and bodies also play an important role in providing information, monitoring and enforcing those laws and regulations. The European Chemicals Agency oversees and enforce the implementation of EU’s chemicals legislation and the linked chemicals regulatory system REACH (Regulatory, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals) ensures that chemicals are safe for human health, wildlife and the environment. There is also the European Environment Agency, which provides independent information about the environment and help Member States to make informed decisions about improving the environment.  The UK environmental Law Association (UKELA), states in their report that it must a high priority for the UK Government to remain a member of the European Environment Agency post-Brexit, as the agency’s, among other things, coordinate efforts to protect the environment by providing decision makers with information to shape, implement and assess environmental policies.

Will the environment be protected post-Brexit?

The Government has repeatedly promised ‘a Green Brexit’- which in practice means a new agriculture regime, a 25-year environmental plan and a new environmental body to maintain standards and hold ministers to account. In June 2018, the EU Withdrawal Act completed its passage through Parliament, meaning that EU laws not  will be transferred and retained in our legal system. The problem is that it is a huge task to transfer all environmental laws coming from the EU and as many of them won’t make sense after Brexit (for instance, where there are references to EU institutions) they’ll have to be corrected. Some laws might not be faithfully transposed and some may be scrapped or weakened because of the extraordinary wide powers given to ministers to correct these laws.

The European Commission and the European Court of Justice play a crucial role in enforcing environmental law in the UK. After exit, there is a clear need to replace this with an independent UK watchdog- the Government has promised to introduce legislation for this. Green campaigners have suggested that the Government’s proposals makes it clear that the watchdog will be a toothless one- with no guarantee that it will have the power to take the Government to court if it fails to adhere to environmental protections.

Membership of the environmental bodies and agencies of the EU is also at risk, agencies that currently set important standards that covers things from food to air quality .There is little time to replace all these before exit day and even with a deal we risk losing important access to research and support from other countries.  

A report from Friends of the Earth also shows that successive UK governments have, at best, an inconsistent record of protecting the environment- with attempts to weaken EU habitats laws and the EU energy efficiency directive for instance. The EU has given the UK multiple warnings when the UK has failed to address repeated breach of legal air pollution limits.

Promises of a ‘Green Brexit’ remain nothing more than vague political commitments, unless we have strong environmental laws, institutions and enforcement mechanisms in place post-Brexit.