One Year to Brexit: Here’s What to Look Out for on the Environment

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Banksy does Brexit

It has been a long, drawn out, process since the 2016 referendum, but a year today the UK is due to leave the EU. Amidst ongoing negotiations, fears of weakened environmental regulation and reduced ambition on the UK’s climate change policy continue to cause concern.

In this last leg of negotiations, the UK and the EU are due to agree a framework for their future relationship — a crucial phase for Westminster, which will aim to show the UK can retain its foreign and economic influence post-Brexit.

Yet, hardline Brexiteers’ strong position in Theresa May’s cabinet have left the door open for free-market and pro-deregulation ideologues to influence government policy. As DeSmog UK has previously shown, there are deep-rooted connections between those advocating a hard Brexit and climate science deniers both in the UK and in the US.  

With the October 2018 deadline for a final Brexit deal looming, the fate of environmental regulation therefore deserves close attention.  

Uncertainties over environmental regulations

The UK’s legislature is still wrestling over how to transfer about 12,000 existing pieces of EU regulation into UK law.

The controversial Withdrawal Bill is the key piece of legislation meant to ensure this mammoth “copy and paste” exercise.

The bill was passed by the House of Commons in January by a short margin of 29 votes and after more than 500 amendments and new clauses. The Withdrawal Bill will create sweeping powers for the government to change and repeal legislation without parliamentary approval under a so-called ‘Henry VIII clause’. The text is now being scrutinised by the House of Lords, who have warned the bill is fundamentally flawed and requires major rewrites.

In a series of letters sent to ministers at the end of last year, the Environmental Audit Committee raised concerns over how the “one in three out” principle would affect environmental regulation post-Brexit.

The “one in three out” rule was a commitment by David Cameron’s government to remove three pieces of regulation for every new one brought in. Although the government told the committee that it had not yet decided whether to apply the rule, the committee warned it could have “a chilling effect” on future environmental laws and regulations, making the government less likely to adopt future environmental protections.

Going global: Trade deals, chlorinated chicken and milk

Since the Brexit vote, the government has worked to secure new trade deals with countries outside of the EU.

The Department of International Trade has already been holding talks with countries such as the US, China and India over securing new trade relationships.

Concerns have been raised over whether the UK government could find itself under pressure to significantly weaken some of its environmental regulations in order to facilitate trade in post-Brexit deals.

Talks over a US-UK trade deal have crystalised the debate over fears existing EU food standards would be relaxed to allow the US to flood the UK market with chlorinated chickens and milk from cows with infected udders.  

Late last year, international trade secretary Liam Fox — who has ties with free trade groups spreading disinformation about climate change — said the UK would not accept the diluting of animal welfare although he was previously sympathetic to the proposed changes.

Environment secretary Michael Gove has repeatedly said the government would not allow a weakening of food standards and pledged to deliver “a green Brexit, where environmental standards are not only maintained but enhanced”.

Gove said an independent body charged with holding the government to account over environmental standards after the UK has left the EU will be established following a consultation in early 2018. This new body is yet to be formed.

Consequences for energy security

In the wake of the EU referendum, questions were raised over how robust the UK’s energy supply chain was to avoid post-Brexit blackouts.

Earlier this year, a House of Lords subcommittee warned Brexit was threatening energy trade between the UK and the EU with supply shortages and higher prices for consumers.

In the wake of the diplomatic crisis between London and Moscow following the alleged poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal fears of energy shortages were exacerbated as the UK declared it was looking to reduce its gas imports from Russia.

Although less than one percent of UK gas is imported from Russia, the incident had repercussions in London with state-backed company Gazprom announcing cuts to its energy trading operations amid reports of company plans to shut its headquarters in the UK capital.

Whatever the outcome of the diplomatic freeze with Russia, the issue of post-Brexit energy supply remains on the table.

Devolved governments’ fear of “power grab”

Environmental regulations and agricultural policies are devolved issues in the UK and the government said it saw Brexit as an opportunity for devolved nations in these sectors.  

But both the Scottish and Welsh governments have denounced the Withdrawal Bill as a “power grab” and warned it will damage efforts to protect and enhance environmental protection.  

Devolved governments are concerned they may lack the power to change EU legislation on water quality and forestry, for instance, which will be transferred into the UK law through the Withdrawal Bill.

Scotland is currently using its autonomy under EU law to impose a ban on growing GM crops. Scottish ministers have also said they would continue an EU ban on chlorinated chicken imports as the UK may decide to relax its regulation in order to secure a trade deal with the US.

Environmental regulation questions are also being in raised in Northern Ireland with the EU keen to maintain similar environmental standards on both sides of the border to prevent environmental “dumping” because of weaker regulations in the UK than in Ireland.

London, Cardiff and Edinburgh are reported to be close to a deal over who should take control of certain EU powers after Brexit; including over GM crops, organic farming, fishing quotas, food safety, and pesticides.

Image Credit: Duncan Hull/Banksy Does Brexit (detail)/Flickr/CC-BY-2.0

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