Nothing green about Brexit's red lines

The River Roding near Ilford golf course, East London

Post-Brexit trade plans will not properly protect the environment, finds a new report from Friends of the Earth – as campaigner KIERRA BOX explains

If you like birds, breathing, swimming in the sea, angling, watching nature, a liveable climate, and all the other benefits of strong environmental protections, then you may be shocked to find that they are all up for grabs in a post-Brexit world.

A new and startling report commissioned by Friends of the Earth points out that the post-Brexit trade plans of both Labour and Conservatives are a danger to the environment in the UK and across Europe. The academics who authored UK Environmental Policy Post-Brexit have analysed the range of risk – from moderate to very high – to environmental policy under the main scenarios on offer.

One of the major areas of concern is the UK's water. After decades of badly-regulated industrial practices, progress has been such that we now enjoy the cleanest bathing waters since records began, incidents of serious pollution are going down and rivers are reviving. Most of this was made possible due to EU directives. But the laws protecting the seas, rivers and waterways of the UK are under very high risk across all Brexit scenarios. The report's authors are 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, either.

The least risky option for our environment – aside from remaining in the EU – is the so-called 'Norwegian model', under which the clear 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 of a very high risk that we may lose important protections for birds if we go down that route.

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The current government-favoured option is the 'Canada+++' style deal, which would leave the UK free to pursue trade deals with third countries, but leaves current concerns about the Irish border unresolved. Then there is the Labour-supported option of 'a' customs union deal. Both these options bring an uncertain 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: anything from increasing trade in environmentally damaging chemicals to exporting more waste for incineration across the globe.

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If these scenarios remain the only possible options for the UK-EU relationship after Brexit, it seems clear that the UK government will have broken its promise to the British people that leaving the EU wouldn't put the environment at risk. But neither side is looking likely to put the environment above their negotiating position in time. At this rate, the future doesn't look very green at all – with this many red lines drawn all over the place, it's a murky brown at best.

The conclusion is clear: the version of Brexit being proposed by the government and the main opposition party really do put our environment in serious danger. 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.

Finally, everyone needs to start to get real about this: for a long time the reality of Brexit was a looming but amorphous shape, but it could be under a year away now, so the government have got to shape up. So much rhetoric around the issue puts people off trying to understand the implications of various post-Brexit scenarios. We hope this report will spur parliament to make much needed changes to the Withdrawal Bill, to lock in guarantees for our environmental protection that the report's authors have found lacking so far.

Kierra Box is a campaigner for Friends of the Earth; to see the report, visit

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