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 now that the UK has left the EU. 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 promised. And we need to make sure that the future relationship between the UK and the EU guarantees and supports strong environmental protections.
Back in 2016, we created a 5-point checklist of measures the UK government needed to take to make sure Brexit didn't trash our environment. Now we've returned to the checklist to see how they've done – and added a new point in light of the UK's net zero commitment.
Important things the government needs to do to back up its Brexit environment claims
1: Replace all EU environment laws
80% of our environment laws came from the EU. We need to keep or improve all of these protections – and we need them working properly.
The government took a "snapshot" of all EU environment laws on 29 January 2020, when the UK formally left the EU. Since then, hundreds of changes have been made to how these laws will function in the future. Many of these changes came into force on 1 January 2021, while some will happen later.
The government says these changes were all needed to make sure our laws keep working properly. But we have found examples of changes that already seem to weaken some of our protections, make unnecessary changes to how the law works, or seem to have been made in error.
If changes made either accidentally or deliberately to our environmental laws mean that they don't function as well in the future, protections for everything from wild birds to clean water could stop working properly or disappear entirely. This would leave a gaping hole for polluters to take advantage of.
Verdict: On the surface, these laws do (mainly) still apply, even if not guaranteed for the future. But it is yet to be seen if all the small changes we've noticed will add up to some significant differences to the rulebook very soon.
2: Watchdog to enforce laws
The government has promised a UK environment watchdog, and the EU deal does contain some requirements to make sure that it is set up and helps to enforce environmental laws.
However, the watchdog proposed in the Environment Bill isn't the independent and powerful body we need. If this ineffective watchdog goes ahead, government could break environmental rules in the future and it could be impossible for us to properly hold it to account.
The Environment Bill is a proposed law which aims to:
- Make sure that future governments will need to consider environmental principles when they make laws.
- Set up an environmental watchdog so we can all hold future governments to account.
- Set out a new system of plans and targets to improve our environment.
We don’t think the bill is good enough as it stands (October 2020). But parliament still has a chance to change that. Find out more about how your MP could improve the bill on the Greener UK website.
To function properly, 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.
The new watchdog won't be in place until summer 2021. Until then, we will be relying on a temporary body that won't have the same powers. This could lead to delays in much needed action making sure polluters pay for threatening the places we love, our wildlife and our health.
Verdict: We don't currently have a UK environmental watchdog and still have concerns about the strength of government proposals. We'll need to wait and see if the final body is strong enough to satisfy the EU too. Check back in autumn 2021...
3: Support healthy farming and fishing
In 2020, government passed new laws on farming and fishing in the UK. We said that these laws must protect nature at least as well as EU laws, and include at least the same amount of funding.
The new Agriculture and Fisheries Acts go a long way towards supporting more sustainable methods of farming and fishing, but they miss some big opportunities to cut pesticides use, address overfishing and guarantee standards.
Verdict: So far this test has been achieved, but much will depend on how the reality of new fishing rules actually work, and if new systems for paying farmers to support the environment function. A "pass" for now – but all of this could be undercut by a move to lower standards in future.
4: No loophole to lower standards in the future
UK governments shouldn't be able to roll back environment laws in the future. A legally-binding international agreement – like a trade deal with the EU – could have made it much harder for future governments to weaken laws by setting out enforceable commitments for both sides to maintain protections.
But this deal doesn't protect people in the UK from lower standard imports or from changes to important UK environment rules that don't affect EU trade. That could still leave the UK open to importing chlorine-washed chicken or meat filled with antibiotics in the future, and allow government to delete rules that stop companies using bee-harming chemicals or GM seeds.
The government has also refused to put a commitment that standards will not be lowered into the new Environment Bill.
Verdict: All of this makes it much easier for government to relax or delete the rules we have, and doesn't provide any incentive for either the UK or the EU to improve environmental rules in future. Fail.
5: Protect us from harmful goods and services
For the last few decades, products and activities that could damage nature, our climate or our health have been made safer or banned by EU agencies and the rules they set. The UK government must make sure we are still protected now we are no longer part of the EU.
Having a trade deal with the EU offers us some protection from harmful goods and services, because if the UK lowers standards in a way that affects trade, EU members can fight back by suspending parts of the agreement. But as we've said above, this doesn't stop the UK importing products that damage our climate and environment from elsewhere.
The deal hasn't resulted in the UK remaining part of any of the EU agencies that ensure goods and services are safe and well regulated either. These agencies set standards in everything from food and chemical safety to air quality and protection for nature. But now UK bodies have to do the entire job alone. This means that even if the government doesn't try to weaken protections, important rules could be updated more slowly, and risks missed.
And finally, we have yet to see if UK border controls will be up to the job of checking that products entering from the EU and the rest of the world meet our high standards as effectively as EU border controls have in the past.
Verdict: There are a number of practical hurdles to protecting us from harmful goods and services in the future. These can be overcome, but it will require government to put environmental and health impacts above rushing through new trade deals.
6: Get on track for net zero
We compiled the 5-point test above back in 2016. Since then, the UK government has committed to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The question is, does the new EU-UK deal help or hinder us on the path to net-zero?
Good news: unusually, the text of the EU-UK deal specifies that the "fight against climate change" is an essential part of the agreement, and that doing something that "defeats" the Paris Climate Agreement would be seen as going against the trade deal. This should make it harder for the UK to backtrack on climate protections without challenge from the EU and possible trade penalties.
But we won't reach net zero if the UK sticks to the status quo when it comes to carbon emissions. It's therefore useful that the agreement also includes some binding commitments on reducing emissions and implementing carbon pricing. But further commitments to cooperate to fight climate change and promote more sustainable trade are just warm words, included in a non-binding chapter of the deal.
At home, it still isn't clear how government intends to reach net zero. We don't have full details of the new UK Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), or how it will work with the EU ETS system. UK government has not yet confirmed if the UK will bring in a border carbon tax (as planned in the EU) to cut carbon intensive imports. And the impact of the trade agreement on UK manufacturing of more sustainable technology is still being unpacked.
Verdict: Climate represents one of the few innovative provisions in this trade agreement. However, the safeguard will likely be a last resort measure which will do nothing to increase UK ambition, at least in the short term. Securing a strong UK carbon pricing system, enforcing parts of the agreement committing both sides to cutting emissions, and more detail on UK ambition in the lead up to climate change talks this year will be crucial.
This article was originally written and published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the December 2020 deal between the EU and the UK.