Brexit will be the great environmental disaster

PUBLISHED: 12:04 24 July 2017 | UPDATED: 12:04 24 July 2017

PA Wire/PA Images

PA Wire/PA Images

PA Wire/PA Images

When it comes to Brexit and the environment our ties to the EU are complex.

At a panel debate on Brexit at which I spoke last week, a Remain-supporting member of the audience revealed that his Leave-voting friend had likened the UK’s withdrawal from Europe to undoing a complicated knot – difficult at first, but once the work starts, becoming much easier to unentangle.

This analogy is a good one – particularly when you ask why the knot is there in the first place. Is the knot stopping something being free, and undoing it will allow Britain to run smoothly, as Brexiters like to fantasise? Or is the knot like one on the rigging of a sailing boat, holding everything together, and once undone will cause the whole thing to collapse? This is the reality of our ties with the EU. To unpick them will cause damage to the UK on many levels – not least to the environment.

How Brexit will affect the UK’s environmental protections and global leadership on climate change has been one of the untold stories of our withdrawal from Europe. In the run-up to the second round of negotiations in Brussels this week, the debate in Britain was dominated by Cabinet ministers briefing against the chancellor Philip Hammond because of his Soft Brexit stance. This ministerial squabbling detracts from the substance of Brexit, at the very moment we need to debate the detail. That panel debate last week, at Shoreditch House, was dedicated to the issue of the environment and in an hour and a half we barely scratched the surface.

MORE: 12 reasons why Michael Gove is bad for the environment

When it comes to the environment, our link to the EU is not just one knot. The ties are complex, and it is going to be one hell of a job to unpick them. Of all the directives and laws we are repatriating from Brussels, under the legislation whose name has been switched from the Great Repeal Bill to the less hubristic European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, 1,100 alone are related to the environment. With the clock ticking on Brexit, and MPs now embarking on their long summer break, the parliamentary time to debate these measures, let alone the rest of EU legislation, is dwindling.

Green campaigners fear that the Government will use the sheer scale of directives and laws to be transferred as a way to undermine regulation of environmental protections. The Government insists that this regulation will be switched straight into UK law, green measure for green measure – but let’s not pretend that Theresa May and her ministers don’t relish the opportunity to tear up red tape whenever they can.

So the safeguards we have taken for granted for years, and the standards many of us never knew were there but would be alarmed if they were taken away - like clean beaches and rivers, control of pesticides and regulation of food that stops chicken being washed in chlorine and beef reared on hormones – are all at risk without proper scrutiny by MPs. Caroline Lucas, the Green Party leader and MP, has described environmental protections as under a “cocktail of threats from Brexit”. She and other green campaigners are concerned, in particular, that regulation of our food will be sacrificed to ensure a quick trade deal with the US. With Brexit will come our departure from the EU Environment Agency, the Chemicals Agency and the Emissions Trading Scheme – and it is unclear how safeguarding our environment will be enforced after we leave.

Connected to the environmental debate is the Prime Minister’s insistence that the UK is giving up UK’s membership of Euratom, the EU’s nuclear regulator. This issue barely registered in last year’s referendum campaign, and I imagine a tiny proportion of voters would have been aware of the agency, let alone realised that it enables material used in cancer treatment to be imported to the UK, as well as regulating one of our key exports, enriched uranium, to other EU countries. Euratom surfaced in the PM’s Article 50 letter in March, and Labour did table an amendment to the Article 50 bill to try to keep the UK’s membership, but this was defeated.

Only in recent days has the issue become prominent, thanks to a cross-party alliance led by Labour’s Rachel Reeves and the former Tory minister Ed Vaizey. Membership of Euratom does not come with membership of the EU – yet because its rules are enforced by the European Court of Justice, one of the knots from which Brexiters are desperate to wriggle free, the nuclear agency has become a new red line for the PM.

We have not yet had a proper debate about post-Brexit farming in the UK, and the Common Agricultural Policy – one of the aspects of EU membership that Brexiters love to hate. While the CAP has its flaws, even in its reformed state, from an environmental perspective it plays a crucial role, as payments to farmers include green incentives to tend wild areas. Michael Gove, who since taking up his new job of Environment Secretary has told green groups he is in “listening mode”, has promised that Brexit will in fact be good for Britain’s wildlife. He has pledged that post-Brexit payments to farmers, which will continue at the same levels as EU subsidies until 2022, will target the planting of trees, protecting birds and other wildlife and support wild grassland. Yet questions remain over what will happen to the EU Habitats Directive, which enforces existing protected sites, under the transfer of laws to the UK.

The good news is that, with the government stripped of its majority in the election, MPs now have a chance to ensure the UK’s environment is protected as the Brexit process gets underway. The bad news is that the government can get through votes in the Commons with the help of the DUP, which has a poor track record on climate change. This means that scrutiny of post-Brexit protection of the environment will fall to backbench Conservative MPs, as well as opposition members. Yet since being in power from 2010, the Conservatives have downgraded the environment as a priority as the quest for austerity took hold – failing to see that damage to the environment has economic consequences too.

It is not only Britain’s environment that is at risk under Brexit, of course: the EU will also miss the role our government has played on climate change. For more than a decade, British ministers have led the fight against climate change, both inside and outside the EU. While we will still be able to push the issue in the G20 and in UN climate change talks, as well as bilaterally with the US, officials in Brussels are warning that the post-Brexit EU will lose a powerful voice on reducing emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. Emmanuel Macron may say that he thinks he has persuaded Donald Trump not to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, but the US president has not become a sudden convert to the battle against climate change, which is reaching a major milestone in 2020, the target date for emission reductions. The world is entering a critical phase for the environment and tackling climate change, just as Britain is withdrawing from the bloc where it has led the way. Britain’s environmental link to the EU is one knot that should not be undone.

Jane Merrick is a freelance journalist and columnist; follow her @janemerrick23

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