Britain has equal or weaker protections for the environment despite loud promises for a ‘Green Brexit’, a new report has found.
Air pollution, nature restoration and chemical regulation are among the areas facing lower standards as a result of Brexit, found the coalition of green groups, Greener UK, which has been tracking the strength of environmental standards in the UK since Brexit.
In its eleventh and final ‘risk tracker’ report, the coalition, which includes The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and environmental lawyers ClientEarth, found that the government’s landmark promise to ‘maintain and enhance’ protections has not been met.
In 2017, then Defra Secretary Michael Gove put the principle of a ‘green Brexit’ at the heart of government policy, a pledge welcomed by campaigners and citizens.
But, according to the Greener UK risk tracker, protections for climate, farming, fisheries and water quality are judged similar to 2016; for chemicals, nature, air quality and waste, they are weaker now than they were before.
One reason for the lack of progress or reversal of standards is the introduction of new regulation bodies, including the Office for Environmental Protection, which are set to be less independent and weaker than those they are replacing, Greener UK said.
Secondly, the UK government’s desire to diverge from EU rules has “left holes in existing standards” and a lack of cooperation. This includes things from carbon pricing to wildlife protection, and the decision to leave the EU’s gold standard chemical regulation system, EU REACH. The UK has instead created its own domestic version with fewer staff, less funding and restricted access to existing data.
Head of Greener UK, Sarah Williams, said: “The government said Brexit would see improved environmental standards, but laws that protect people and nature are set to be weaker now than they were before.
“There is still time for the government to make its plans stronger, particularly for chemicals and air pollution, and follow through on promising proposals for farming. We really hope it does so.”
The coalition did identify some areas of potential progress, such as the overhaul of farming policy that aims to base subsidies on provision of habitats and clean water. Similarly, while the Fisheries Bill does not prevent overfishing in UK waters, there are potential improvements in sustainability and monitoring activities at sea that give cause for optimism, the coalition said.
In conclusion, the coalition said while the promise of a green Brexit has not been met, there is time for it to be achieved, using the delayed Environment Bill to address some of the key concerns.
“We were solemnly promised that the UK would maintain and enhance our environmental standards after Brexit,” said chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, Craig Bennett. “Although that might have happened in some areas, massive gaps have opened up as a result of this process – and enforcement is weaker across the board.
“To take a few of many examples, it is a disgrace that many of our offshore Marine Protected Areas are still being damaged through trawling and dredging, and that our rivers are still routinely polluted – harming wildlife and dirtying our drinking water.”
Beccy Speight, chief executive of the RSPB, said: “We are in a nature and climate emergency. The UK’s wildlife is in freefall and needs urgent action. What we were promised was a Green Brexit with protections at least as strong if not stronger than those that applied before Brexit - what we have seen so far suggests a legacy of weakening many of the policies, regulations and legislation we urgently need.
“If our Prime Minister wants to back up his bold and ambitious statements to other world leaders, then it must start with an Environment Bill that tackles the nature crisis on our own doorstep.
“We stand at a crossroads to either revive our world or risk losing our wildlife and special places. We need the environmental protections in place to halt the trajectory of decline and enable nature’s restoration.”