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

Are we on track for a green Brexit?

A Brexit deal has been announced. But deal or no deal, the signs aren’t good for our climate, nature or air.
  Published:  15 Nov 2018    |      Last updated:  10 Jan 2019    |      7 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.

Update: Theresa May published a proposed deal with the EU in November 2018, and in December government published a draft Environment Bill. We've checked if these developments bring the UK closer to passing these tests or crush them underfoot.

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

Does Theresa May's deal meet this test?

Sort of. The government's deal suggests there will be a transition period, during which we'll be covered by EU environment laws. It gives the government-of-the-day time to replace these laws. Whether it does this properly or not is something else to consider.

What about no-deal?

If May's deal is voted down by parliament we'll be back in the impossible situation of trying to do it all by the end of March.

What we said before: 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 it has until exit day (Friday 29 March 2019). This would be a catastrophe for our environment. With a deal, there will be a handover period – so it'll have until the end of 2020.

Test 2 – Body to enforce laws

Does Theresa May's deal meet this test?

Sort of. It says we must set up a watchdog – but the one proposed in the draft Environment Bill isn't the strong, independent powerful body we need. Right now it seems more like a lapdog. 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 March. 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.

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

What we said before: 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

Does Theresa May's deal meet this test?

It does as much as it can. Protections will stay the same during the transition. 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.

What we said before: 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 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

Does Theresa May's deal meet this test?

Yes. The deal makes sure 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?

Worryingly, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit 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. 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.

What we said before: 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 - as long as one can be reached.

Test 5 – Protect us from harmful goods and services

Does Theresa May's deal meet this test?

No. This deal offers some protection by keeping our standards aligned with the EU until the end of the transition. And it sets out a requirement that environmental protections aren’t relaxed afterwards. But again, it's dependent on the watchdog.

Worryingly, this agreement makes it clear that there's no chance of the UK remaining part of any of the EU agencies that ensure goods and services are safe and well regulated. Without any sign of how the UK government aims to establish workable systems to make sure chemicals, medicines and other products are safe for humans and the environment before we exit, this one is the deal breaker.

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.

What we said before: 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.