Before signing up to EU laws, we were pumping untreated sewage straight into the sea. Our protected nature sites were shrinking by 15% each year, pollution from our power stations was causing acid rain, and air pollution was killing more people too.
It’s a welcome sign, then, that the government has promised to uphold environmental laws after leaving the European Union.
Clearly there's public backing to go even further and strengthen those rules. But before we start dreaming of a healthier UK for people and animals, we need to check the government is truly on track to provide the green Brexit it has promised.
Here’s what we’re keeping an eye on as negotiations continue.
Important things the government needs to do to back up its Brexit environment claims
Test 1 – Replace all EU environment laws
80% of our environment laws come from the EU. Some are already part of UK law, some are directly applied from Europe. We need all of them in UK law – and we need them working properly. So are they? Not yet, and time is ticking.
The government’s Brexit legislation became law in June 2018. Known as The Withdrawal Act, it says we’ll keep the EU environment laws that we've already moved into our legal system – and move all the rest across too. Sounds great.
There’s a but. There are hundreds of laws to move across. Many of them won’t make sense as they are. They refer to legal processes that will have no hold over the UK once we leave the EU.
We'll need to correct them, otherwise, protections for everything from wild birds to clean water could stop working properly or disappear entirely – leaving a gaping hole for polluters to take advantage of.
Rushing a job like this increases the likelihood of having environment laws that aren't fit for purpose.
So how much time does the government have to get this right? Without a deal, which is looking more likely, it has until exit day (Friday 29 March 2019). With a deal, there will be a handover period – so it'll have until the end of 2020.
Test 2 – Body to enforce laws
The EU makes sure that environmental protections are enforced properly. Have we replaced it with a fully independent UK watchdog? Not yet – and there are question marks over the powers it will have.
The government has committed to setting up an environmental watchdog.
To be effective this watchdog has to be able to enforce laws – even if the government breaks them. So it has to be independent from the influence of politicians and big business. There's no point having rules if you can break them with impunity.
Take the UK's illegal levels of air pollution. The EU has forced the government to come up with a plan to make our air more breathable. How did it do that? By having the power to impose a multimillion euro fine if ministers fail to get pollution under control.
When the EU is out of the picture, we'll need our own enforcer – making sure polluters pay for threatening the places we love, our wildlife and our health.
With a deal and a handover period the government should have enough time to get a watchdog up and running. But more than ever before, there is talk of not getting a deal at all. Leaving without a deal will lead to a period with no one enforcing the rules, which could extend to years.
Even with a deal, the government needs to guarantee that the new watchdog will have the authority to do the job properly.
Test 3 – Support healthy farming and fishing
We need new laws to support farming and fishing in ways that don’t harm the environment. These laws must protect nature at least as well as EU ones. And include the same amount of funding. So do they? Silence.
In 2018 the government consulted on new laws to fund farmers to support wildlife and the environment – and ecosystems in the sea. It promised they'd be better for the environment than EU laws. But we're still waiting for the details.
What happens if we leave and this isn't sorted? Overfishing and intensive farming could become big problems. And the most environmentally-friendly farmers could lose the funds that help them support nature.
Test 4 – No loophole to lower standards in the future
We need to make it difficult for UK governments to roll back environment laws in the future. A legally-binding international agreement can do this – like an exit deal with the EU. Will it happen? Probably, but only if there is a deal.
Environment minister Michael Gove has promised us strong environmental protections post-Brexit. But promises can be broken, and ministers come and go – as do governments.
So what's to stop them dismantling domestic laws? International pressure in the form of sanctions and fines.
Encouragingly, both the EU and the UK want to include a commitment to maintain environmental standards in an exit deal. But worryingly, the prospect of a no deal has soared recently.
Without a deal to put this promise in, it will never be more than just a promise. We’ll have to rely on UK governments to keep standards high. If they decide not to, there will be no international pressure to change their minds.
Test 5 – Protect us from harmful goods and services
Products and activities that could damage nature, our climate or our health are made safer or banned by EU agencies. Staying part of these agencies is vital until we can do this important work in the UK. Will it happen? It's not looking hopeful even with a deal.
EU members work together in agencies. They set standards in everything from food and chemical safety to air quality and protection for nature.
Products and ways of doing things are constantly evolving. If we transferred over current standards, they'd quickly become dated. So we can’t just leave these agencies – neither do we have time to replace them all before exit day. That would be a huge and expensive task.
Even if we did eventually replace them, we’d lose access to research and support from other countries. We'd be making the job harder and more prone to delays and errors that could lead to environmental damage or health problems.
The government knows this. But it's only suggesting the UK remains a member of some agencies. Even membership of those agencies depends on us striking a deal with the EU – which seems less certain than ever before.
Without a deal, staying in any agencies at all won’t be an option. Important rules that stop companies using bee-harming chemicals, or selling foods containing questionable ingredients, could disappear or stop being updated.
Will Brexit be green enough for you?
It’s all uncertain at the moment. Key things to look out for:
- getting a deal with the EU
- the government delivering on its promises
- and the government passing these 5 tests (above).