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Breathing, birds, and bathing. Brexit risks explained

Post-Brexit trade plans will not properly protect our air, water or wildlife – warns a new report. "Green Brexit" exposed as largely a myth.
Kierra Box
By Kierra Box     |     11 Apr 2018     |       7 minute read

Remember Michael Gove’s infamous dismissal of “experts”? The experts strike back.

A new and startling independent report I’ve just been studying points out that the post-Brexit trade plans of both the Conservative and Labour parties are a danger to the environment across the UK and Europe.  

Doesn't our environment deserve better? We were certainly promised better. We have to make sure politicians live up to their promises. After all, we have a shared environment and so a shared responsibility to protect and restore it.  

How Brexit trade plans threaten nature  

We all know that leaving the EU could lead to weakened environmental protections in the UK. I wanted to know how big these risks might be – and if recent government promises had gone any way to neutralising them. 

So I commissioned this report from Professor Charlotte Burns of Sheffield University, along with co-authors, to find out how what risks our environment really faces, and if current plans for the future EU-UK relationship overcome these risks. They had complete freedom to lay out the truth as they saw it. Even I was shocked by their analysis. Please read it, and talk about it. The conclusion is clear: the version of Brexit being proposed by the government and their main opposition party really does put our environment in serious danger.  

The analysis identifies that the protection of our birds, habitats, fisheries, air quality and water quality face a very uncertain future from a future trading deal with the EU without legal guarantees on environmental standards.  

The report is unimpressed by the government’s recent 25-year environmental plan, pointing out that it’s actually weaker than current EU safeguards in a number of places, and is woefully short on detail. There’s no strong, well-resourced watchdog to do the job of keeping the government on track.  

Through forensic analysis this report has exposed the “green Brexit” rhetoric as mostly spin.  

Brexit options and environmental risks 

The authors looked at a range of factors – from how current EU trade deals work to protect the environment to what our ministers are saying and doing to mitigate risks, and how current UK or international law might support or undermine protections. Then they scored the risk for some key bits of our environment under different possible future options. 

They found  that the least risky option for our environment – aside from remaining in the EU, which Friends of the Earth campaigned for – is the so-called “Norwegian model”. Under this option the vast majority of EU environmental law would apply, but with some pretty large exceptions, like the birds and habitats directive.  This is why the report warns that there’s a very high risk that we may lose important protections for birds if we go down that route. 

The current government-favoured option is the Canada+++ style deal. This would leave the UK free to pursue trade deals with third countries, but this option isn’t straight-forward. For one thing, it would leave current concerns about the Irish border unsolved, and it is still a very vague proposal - both the UK and EU have very different ideas of what this deal could look like.

There is the Labour-supported option of “a” Customs Union deal but both this and the Canada option bring a very highly risky future for our natural habitats and wild birds. Seven other policy areas that support clean water, clean air, fisheries and agriculture also face high risks under both scenarios.  

As for a “no-deal”, as advocated by some hard-line Brexit supporters, or as a result of chaotic failure to reach an agreement with the EU, the risks multiply for waste policy, chemicals regulation and our global climate. This could have worldwide consequences. 

At this rate, the future doesn’t look so much green as a kind of murky brown, at best. 

We were promised a green Brexit

So what to do, having read UK Environmental Policy Post-Brexit: A Risk Analysis

  • Firstly, we need some clear ‘green’ red lines in the EU-UK Brexit agreement – no backsliding on any environmental safeguards, and a commitment to make improvements year on year and in step with each other. If the UK won’t insert this requirement then the EU must, because without it their environment is in danger as well. 
  • Secondly, we need a tough UK environmental watchdog, independent, well-resourced and ready to bite from day one of our exit from the EU. 
  • Thirdly, we need government to cut the crap and start to get real.  All this rhetoric puts people off trying to understand how Brexit might impact on their health and environment, and prevents real debate about our future relationship with the EU. Apparently, the UK should be ‘out with opt-ins’, not ‘in with opt-outs’ - but with no certainty and so many conflicting visions of the future, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is the government's own Schrodinger's cat. We need clear proposals for overcoming these risks and action to guarantee our future environment.

How this Brexit analysis affects you

If you like birds, breathing, swimming in the sea, angling, watching nature in Britain’s green and pleasant land, a liveable climate, and all the other benefits of strong environmental protections, then this report is for you because they are all up for grabs in a post-Brexit world. 

We hope this report will spur changes to the Withdrawal Bill, currently going through parliament, and in the negotiations being held between the UK and EU. We will work day and night to make sure our environmental protections aren’t weakened.

We hope this report will spur Parliament to make much needed changes to the Withdrawal Bill, currently going through parliament – to lock in guarantees for our environmental protection that the report authors have found lacking so far. And we hope it will encourage both sides to put their ‘red lines’ to one side and put our environment, health and the future of our planet first in the negotiations being held between the UK and EU.

What can you do?

Please talk about it. The conclusion is clear: the version of Brexit being proposed by the government and their main opposition party really do put our environment in serious danger.  Write to your MP, with pen and paper – be the voice for the environment and let rip.