"Let's get going", the government ad campaign declares, imploring us to embrace the UK's "new start".
It has all the hallmarks of a Dominic Cummings campaign. Three words, alluringly simple, clearly focus grouped to within an inch of their life. Who doesn't want a new start after the last six months, or the last six years come to that? Who doesn't look at this historically dangerous moment and find some comfort in the idea that the best route forward is to act decisively, to take back control, to get going?
The problem for all businesses and green business in particular is where are we going to precisely? Sunlit sovereign uplands? A decade of accelerated post imperial decline? A lorry park in Kent?
The government campaign does provide some answers. We are getting going to a place outside the Customs Union and that means new administrative burdens and trade barriers (and don't even ask about trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of these British Isles). Clean tech companies hoping to export electric vehicles and offshore wind services to our closest neighbours have got multiple new headaches to deal with. The hope is those headaches will be eased by the paracetamol of new trade deals and opportunities outside the EU. The problem is that prescription has not yet been written, let alone collected.
We are also getting going to a place without freedom of movement and with an entirely new immigration system, which means new travel and recruitment challenges. Again, the hope is these woes will be offset by new opportunities elsewhere in the world and a wider global recruitment pool for businesses, but there are no guarantees such windfalls will materialise.
However, beyond these practical details so much else remains opaque. Will the UK get its promised oven ready trade deal with the EU? Will it get a trade deal with the US, and if so at what cost? Will the various big green Brexit bills - the Agriculture, Fisheries, and Environment Bills - pass, and if they do will the government have the time, the resources, and bandwidth to set up the various promised agencies, processes, and watchdogs to replace 40 years of EU legislative architecture? Michael Gove insists all will be fine, which is about as reassuring as listening to his government's contradictory views, six months in to a global pandemic, on whether people should wear masks or not.
The government keeps insisting all will be fine from an environmental perspective. That standards will be maintained and strengthened. It even responds indignantly to anyone who questions whether such assurances can be trusted.
But this is gas-lighting in its purest form. The reason so many environmental campaign groups and businesses are so concerned is because some of the key architects of Brexit keep saying that the whole point of the project is to deregulate, roll back environmental protections, and import chlorinated chicken. This is not a secret. It may not be the government's official view, but it is the view of many of the government's allies and some of its members. It is not unreasonable to be concerned about how the coming years could play out, especially when the government keeps refusing to accept amendments that would deliver more stringent legal protections.
It is worth highlighting at this point that the government last week launched a new independent commission tasked with advising on how to ensure the farming sector "remains competitive and that animal welfare and environmental standards in food production are not undermined" as new trade deals are sought. It promptly excluded all the main environmental NGOs from the Commission's membership, made sure at least one aggressively free market think tank was included, and then spent the weekend promoting a Telegraph op ed from its chair under the headline "the alarmism over chlorinated chicken must end". Even the eminently reasonable Shaun Spiers of the Greener UK alliance was led to publicly declare that "it's hard to resist the conclusion that @tradegoveuk @trussliz don't give a toss about the environment!"
A Green Brexit remains possible. The government's proposed reforms to agricultural subsidies could yet emerge as a major environmental prize. Ministers commitment to a green recovery seems genuine and public support for high environmental standards make it unlikely a future government would have an easy ride pushing a deregulatory agenda. There are some wise heads who believe a UK freed from Brussels one-size-fits-all policy approach could emerge as a dynamic global clean tech hub.
But none of that is guaranteed and the journey to any green sunlit uplands would have been tumultuous enough even before the coronavirus storm hit. It is made all the harder by the fact there is less than six months to go until the UK fully leaves the EU and so many questions - both practical and philosophical - are still being answered by vacuous slogans designed to conceal the fact that costs and trade barriers are set to rise, and environmental risks could soon follow them.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.
Dr Lorraine Whitmarsh is director of CAST (Climate change and Social Transformations) at the University of Bath
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