Farmland fields near Lesbury, Northumberland

Post-Brexit: what's next for the environment?

Post-Brexit, what are the threats to the UK's environmental legislation, and how will Friends of the Earth campaign to protect climate and nature?
photo of Dave Timms, Friends of the Earth
By Dave Timms    |      Published:  30 Jan 2020    |      3 minute read

Last year we saw a rising tide of public concern, led by young people, demanding decisive action to stop the climate and nature emergency. Once the UK has left the EU, how and who we choose to trade with, and how strong we make the legal protections for public health, wildlife and the countryside, are a key part of the response to that demand.

Environmental legislation at risk

Since the Brexit referendum, Friends of the Earth has campaigned to ensure that the environmental laws and regulations that originated with the EU – that give us cleaner rivers and beaches, protect our wildlife, and limit our exposure to unsafe chemicals –would be transferred into UK law and maintained once we left.

However, despite claiming that Brexit poses no threat to these standards and there is no plot to ditch them, the government has resisted every attempt to guarantee this in law and failed to produce plans for a new post-EU watchdog fit to enforce them. Statements from Boris Johnson’s new government have been contradictory, repeatedly claiming environmental standards will be high and maintained (or even world leading) – whilst seeking the maximum ability to reduce them. The Government's Environment Bill published today (30 January 2020) will need considerable changes if it is even to offer the same level of protection that we had as part of the EU.

Still time to protect environmental standards?

Having left the EU, we have until the end of 2020 to agree what a future relationship with our neighbours in Europe – the world’s largest and most powerful trading bloc – will look like. This won’t just cover how we’ll trade in the future, but also how the UK and EU will cooperate on many issues. The less we agree to work alongside the EU in maintaining and improving our public health and environmental standards to match theirs, the more difficult it will be to trade in the future.

Leaving the EU will also pitch the UK into trade negotiations with the US, and an administration that's shown it acts in the interests of toxic polluters, fast food and the fossil fuel industries. The Conservative Manifesto at the General Election promised not to trade away environmental standards after Brexit, yet it is impossible to see another outcome if a US deal is prioritised and standards aren't legally guaranteed. Even decent oversight of government trade negotiations by parliament has so far been rejected.

Friends of the Earth's campaign focus for 2020

We have until the end of 2020 – our EU Transition Period – to rectify these problems. So it is vital that during these coming transition months, with so much on the line, that we all continue pushing for environmental protections to be guaranteed through legislation. That’s why Friends of the Earth has sided with farmers in seeking a legal guarantee to maintain high environmental, food and animal welfare standards and ensure they aren’t undermined by food imported from countries with lower standards.

The next few months will see Parliament debate key pieces of legislation on agriculture, environmental protection and trade. These will set in place the shape of how, outside the EU, we farm, treat our countryside and wildlife and protect public health for decades to come. There are threats, but also opportunities to win strong action to double tree cover and end plastic pollution, all of which are part of our aim to win definitive action to stop the climate catastrophe.

Communities have the power to take climate action

The reality is that action to tackle the climate emergency here in the UK has flat-lined. The country is off-track to meet our existing carbon budgets, and emissions from transport are actually rising. We cannot let the potential impact of Brexit, and losing so many hard-won environmental protections, put our progress on this vital issue at risk.

In 2020 Friends of the Earth, together with our supporters, will focus on bringing about a fundamental shift in the ambition of government policies on climate breakdown. Local communities including Climate Action groups, together with councils (many already way ahead of the Westminster government in their ambition), will be at the centre of demanding, winning and making that change.