UK waterways are at particularly high risk from 'zombiefication' of UK environment policy post Brexit, according to new report
The health of Britain's wildlife hotspots and waterways could suffer dramatically from declining environmental standards post-Brexit, a new risk assessment released today by Friends of the Earth warns.
Despite the government repeatedly promising to deliver a 'Green Brexit' that ensures no drop in environmental standards, the paper warns that under any Brexit scenario - even the softest 'Norwegian option' - UK environment and wildlife could be set to suffer.
"The government committed to a green Brexit but our analysis demonstrates that its delivery will be challenging," report author Professor Charlotte Burns, of the University of Sheffield, said in a statement. "Every Brexit scenario carries risks for our environment with nature protection being particularly at risk even under the soft, 'Norwegian' option."
Under a Norway-style deal, the UK would become a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which would give Britain access to the single market in return for the UK accepting the EU's principles of the single market, including free movement of people.
The UK government has promised the UK will leave the single market and customs union after Brexit, leaving the 'soft Brexit' option looking increasingly unlikely.
But a Norway deal would be the best outcome for the environment, according to the paper. While the scale of environmental policy risk depends on the outcome of a final deal, the report argues that potential outcomes range from the loss of protection for rare birds under the Birds and Habitat Directive as part of a Norway-style deal, to the elimination of almost all EU green laws under a 'no-deal' scenario.
British rivers and streams are under particular threat, according to the study. Unless new enforcement measures are introduced, regulatory gaps could result in the 'zombiefication' of existing protections, where rules remain on the statute books but are not upheld on the ground.
Meanwhile air quality is judged to be at high risk under all but the Norwegian model, and control over nitrates, fisheries and habitats could also suffer.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has promised to establish a national environmental watchdog "with real bite" to govern green rules in the UK after Brexit. The Environment Secretary has also suggested he wants to see the UK adopt EU green legal principles such as the 'polluter pays' and 'precautionary principle' after Brexit, and acknowledged the government's future green ambitions will need "legislative underpinning".
However, it remains unclear precisely how Gove's promised new green watchdog will operate, or how much independence, authority, and funding it will have. BusinessGreen understands that a consultation on the watchdog is imminent, but has been delayed by a fierce debate over the structure and remit of the agency between Whitehall departments.
In response to the report's release, Defra insisted its intention is to deliver a green Brexit, "not only maintaining but enhancing environmental standards as we leave the EU".
"We will soon consult on an independent, statutory body to hold the government to account on the environment and on a new statement of environmental principles," a spokesman added.
Meanwhile, green groups and business bodies, including the CBI this week, have repeatedly warned more clarity is required on the UK's future relationship with a raft of EU environmental and energy policies and agencies.
Kierra Box, Brexit campaign lead at Friends of the Earth, warned the government is in danger of breaking its promises to deliver a green Brexit. "Brexit is now just a year away, but we're not prepared," she said. "Report after report is showing that decision-makers have not identified ways to make sure that the UKs future relationship with the EU locks in environmental protections - in fact, they've set down negotiating red lines that actively stand in the way of a 'green Brexit'.
"The legal safeguards are not in place for nature and the climate. And promises of action are just backed up by more promises of action. Time is running out," she stressed.
The EU is also keen to ensure Britain maintains its environmental standards after Brexit. Earlier this week the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the EU would insist on a "non-regression" clause in any future trade deals with the UK, to ensure the UK continues to meet EU environmental standards post-Brexit.
Barnier said the EU would be "extremely vigilant" about any attempt to undercut EU green standards in pursuit of a competitive advantage, although he said he expected an agreement on a non-regression clause to be difficult to achieve.
The government may have made a host of promises to ensure Brexit does not result in a watering down on environmental standards. But with some of its own Ministers signalling they would be relaxed about a dilution of standards and without more detail on how green pledges will be underpinned by a legal framework, it may be the EU continues to hold the UK to account on green rules, even after exit day.
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