The EU flag ripping down the middle to reveal a field with wind turbines and cows

Are we on track for a green Brexit?

Even with a deal, the signs aren’t great for our climate, nature or air. But a no deal would be disastrous.
  Published:  15 Nov 2018    |      Last updated:  10 Jan 2019    |      6 minute read

Whether you're leave or remain, over 80% of us want the same or stronger protections for our wildlife and environment in a post-Brexit Britain.

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.

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. And we need to make sure that the most damaging option – leaving the EU without a deal – is firmly off the table.

Please sign our petition urging party leaders to rule out a dirty no-deal Brexit.

Important things the government needs to do to back up its Brexit environment claims

Clipboard on table showing Green Brexit check list - 5 key areas

Test 1 – Replace all EU environment laws

With a deal

The government could negotiate a transition period, during which we'll be covered by EU environment laws. It would give the government time to replace these laws. Whether it replaces them properly or not is something else to consider.

What about no-deal?

The government will be in the impossible situation of trying to replace all these laws by the end of October.

More detail

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.

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.

Test 2 – Body to enforce laws

With a deal

With a deal and a handover period the government should have enough time to get a watchdog up and running. But the one proposed in the draft Environment Bill isn't the strong, independent powerful body we need.

If the government goes ahead with this ineffective watchdog, it could break environmental rules in the future and it could be impossible for us to properly hold it to account.

What about no-deal?

There is no chance of any kind of environmental watchdog being functional by the end of October. Leaving without a deal will lead to a period with no one enforcing the rules, which could extend to years.

That means that if there is no deal we could see an immediate decline in how environmental rules are applied. And we could face months or years without access to legal routes to make the government properly act to protect our environment.

More detail

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 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.

Please sign our petition urging party leaders to rule out a dirty no-deal Brexit.

Test 3 – Support healthy farming and fishing

With a deal

With a negotiated transition period, protections will stay the same. The real evidence for this test being met will come when the Agriculture and Fisheries bills are passed in the UK, and when new UK trade deals are signed – then we’ll see if our standards have been traded away.

What about no-deal?

Without a deal, the situation will be uncertain for farmers and fishermen as new laws aren't ready yet. Pressure to get new trade deals agreed quickly will give the UK less power in negotiations and less time to prepare. This could leave us accepting lower quality imports that undercut our industries.

Please sign our petition urging party leaders to rule out a dirty no-deal Brexit.

More detail

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.

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 final 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

With a deal

A deal between the UK and the EU would ensure we can't lower environmental protections. But as we said above, if we don't get an effective watchdog it will be much easier for the government to ignore its own rules.

What about no-deal?

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. The draft Environment Bill didn't set our minds at rest either – there is currently no mention of safeguarding our environmental protections in the text.

Please sign our petition urging party leaders to rule out a dirty no-deal Brexit.

More detail

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.

Former environment minister Michael Gove had 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.

Test 5 – Protect us from harmful goods and services

With a deal

A negotiated deal would offer some protection by keeping our standards aligned with the EU until the end of the transition.

And it would foreseeably set out a requirement that environmental protections aren’t relaxed afterwards. Though we'd still need an effective watchdog to come down hard on governments that break these rules.

Worryingly, so far negotiations haven't included the UK remaining part of any of the EU agencies that ensure goods and services are safe and well regulated.

What about no-deal?

If the UK leaves the EU without a deal in March, we won't have enough time to set up the infrastructure to properly check things at the border – meaning long, polluting queues and traffic snaking through our countryside, and the possibility of letting in goods that could damage our environment.

Without a deal, it won't be an option to stay part of the agencies that ensure food, chemicals and other goods are safe. Important rules that stop companies using bee-harming chemicals, or selling foods containing questionable ingredients, could disappear or stop being updated.

Please sign our petition urging party leaders to rule out a dirty no-deal Brexit.

More detail

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.