Take no-deal Brexit off the table for the environment's sake
Brexit has dominated the headlines for months but the crescendo is rapidly approaching: Tuesday’s vote in parliament will decide whether Theresa’s May’s plan stands or falls. But there is still a plethora of options on the table: from May to Norway, backing the deal to amending it, voting it down to calling for a People’s Vote, the choice is anything but clear.
But whatever happens, one thing is certain: a no-deal would be a disaster for the environment and should be taken off the table.
Critical time for our environment
The world is warming. Climate chaos is already hitting people and wildlife in the UK. Our birds, animals and nature are in rapid decline. We’re seeing the end of species in our lifetime. We know our environment isn’t in the best shape already. And we know the UK would still be the dirty man of Europe if it wasn’t for EU legislation.
Our membership of the EU resulted in the government improving air quality, implementing protections for special natural habitats and species, and taking action to prevent companies in the UK flushing raw sewage straight out into our seas. This is, in part, why 2018 research by Professor Charlotte Burns shows that a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic for the UK’s environment.
No-deal puts all we have now in jeopardy and offers the worst possible context for an ambitious future.
Immediate impacts of a no-deal Brexit
There would be some dramatic and immediate consequences of crashing out of the EU on 29 March 2018. The government has admitted that it hasn't got all the practical arrangements in place to deal with these. In fact, it's been forced to confess there are some it's barely even planned for.
From delays checking food and animals at ports and the implications of this for food and welfare standards; to increased air pollution in Kent following lengthy border queues and the transformation of Dover into a car park; or waste and recycling piling up when the UK can no longer export its rubbish to Europe: our environment would face an immediate precipice.
And of course, there are big questions around the Irish border that need resolving – not only for the environment but for the integrity of the island and the Good Friday Agreement.
Longer term impacts of no-deal
But it’s the longer-term issues that mean a no-deal Brexit looks especially bleak for the climate, wildlife and our health.
Gaps in governance would mean we can’t hold the government to account for poor environmental performance. So if it fails to maintain progress on cleaning up our dirty air in the future, we won’t be able to take the government to court as we’ve done before.
Gaps in regulation would mean that where experts currently make sure chemicals, goods and medicines are safe, the UK would be left with empty space. All our current EU safeguards would be gone, and we could see chemicals that may harm pollinators, human health and biodiversity on supermarket shelves and in fields.
And there are risks to our air and water quality. Future governments will be free to backslide on current environmental protections if so-called 'non-regression’ isn’t included in a deal. This means our standards would be free to fall in comparison with the rest of Europe.
So much for the UK as a global environmental and climate leader.
Michael Gove has made lots of lovely promises about a new environment act to ‘maintain and enhance’ environmental protections, including a new watchdog, as we exit Europe.
But in a no-deal scenario, the political pressure to get the economy moving will trump all of this. And pressure will mount to lower food and welfare standards, to secure quick and dirty trade deals. I use the word ‘Trump’ deliberately. In such a scenario, it’s very easy to imagine Mr Gove’s promises fading away.
Take no-deal off the table
Anything could happen in the days and weeks ahead. But anyone who cares about the environment should be working to avoid no-deal at all costs. With MPs lining up to vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal in just a few days, it’s clear that this vote is going to determine the future of our environment for years to come.
We need our representatives to find a way to protect us from the no-deal threat – and they're running out of time to keep proposing and arguing about new ideas that don’t cut the mustard.
From the Conservative MP Dominic Grieve to the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas – politicians, academics and ordinary people all agree that no-deal is the worst option possible for us and our environment – and we cannot let it happen. So it’s up to parliament to take charge and rule it out, once and for all.
We need a back-up plan, a workable plan B – and MPs need to come together and create it, ASAP.
We need our representatives to find a way to protect us from the no-deal threat.
We’ve always said remaining in the EU was better for our environment. But if the UK leaves, the vital thing is to retain the existing protections and to have the time and space to build on those and set out a positive ambition for the future.
No-deal puts all we have now in jeopardy and offers the worst possible context for an ambitious future. If MPs can’t guarantee 100% that a no-deal Brexit is off the table, the UK must remain part of the EU until it is.
Craig Bennett is Friends of the Earth's chief executive. A version of this article first appeared on Huffpo.