16/01/2017 12:14 GMT | Updated 17/01/2018 05:12 GMT

Does Brexit Threaten UK Environmental Protections?

BEN STANSALL via Getty Images

After the referendum last June there were fears that environmental protection could be one of the casualties of Brexit. Whilst the more suspicious of us were not entirely convinced by reassuring noises from some politicians, the intervening months might have left us a bit less worried. But now the alarm bells are ringing again ahead of Theresa May's long-awaited speech on Brexit.

Media speculations (not to say the financial markets) now think the so-called 'hard' Brexit seems the more likely option. The consequence of this is that environmental protections built up over decades of EU membership could be lost. We shouldn't forget that the UK has been in the EU since 1971 and much environmental concern, and thus law, has arisen since that time. Furthermore, many environmental problems - e.g. air pollution, conservation of migratory species, and climate change - can only be tackled at an international level so having a regional body regulate these trans-border issues makes sense. When you hear some politicians referring to this as 'Brussels red tape', it's worth remembering the advantages of much environmental law and regulation being done at an EU level. Not to mention the fact that, over several decades, EU law has helped clean up our beaches, our air, our drinking water and our energy system.

Of course, a chunk of this EU law will be incorporated into UK legislation in the 'Great Repeal Bill'. But this already comes with caveats. Firstly, the Environment Secretary has said about a third of EU law will not be incorporated because it's too difficult. Secondly, some standards like those on air pollution are enforced through the European courts, and the UK removing itself from the EU means that there's no redress if government action fails to deliver those required standards. You only need to look at what's already happened in the court cases brought by ClientEarth to understand the importance of this. In the absence of court enforcement, it's easy to see UK governments, of all different colours, making some pious noises of concern, but failing to take tough decisions necessary to clean up our air.

This much was already clear. What's new from this weekend is that there is now a wide expectation that Prime Minister May will side with a 'hard' Brexit and cut Britain off from ties with the EU market, EU court, and the EU's body of law and standards (including environmental law).

Meanwhile a full recognition of the economic difficulty the UK will be in under the circumstances of a hard Brexit is becoming clear. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, said that the UK could 'change economic model to regain competitiveness', widely interpreted as meaning a shift to a low-tax economy and - here's the crunch point - weaker social security and environmental standards to lower the cost base of UK businesses.

So the threat to our environmental protections is clear. But, one might argue, if EU standards are being incorporated into UK law through the 'Great Repeal Bill', there would still have to be Parliamentary votes to shift the UK to this 'new economic model' with all the loss of environmental and social protections involved. Well, maybe not. We've now learnt that the Great Reform Bill may well also include provisions allowing ministers, without a parliamentary vote, to sweep aside legislation originally passed into law by parliament. Thus those senior ministers with a deregulatory bent can simply abandon them on a gut instinct. Note that some ministers have described environmental protections as 'spirit-crushing', and other prominent politicians have form on calling for deregulation while key senior ministers have links to deregulatory think tanks looking to roll back environmental regulation. The temptation to do away with these protections by ministerial fiat in the interests of getting trade deals has already been raised. The chilling effect of international trade deals on environmental and social progress was raised heavily during the controversy on an EU trade deals with the US known as TTIP, although that specific deal now looks to have been abandoned.

A new push for deregulation may well train its sights on environmental and consumer protections we now take for granted, from the UK standards on chemicals legislation, to resource efficiency and water quality. And given the bind the government is currently in over its compliance with air quality laws - and the hurdle this poses to expanding Heathrow airport - the temptations to get rid of these crucial laws protecting our health from illegal levels of air pollution could become overwhelming.

And so the scenario which now looks plausible is this: the UK heads for a hard Brexit completely cutting ties with the EU, and turns itself into a low-tax, low-standards economy, destroying decades of law building up environmental protection. This is done by a deregulatory government unhindered by Parliament, yet without a mandate from either a General Election or, in any meaningful way, the EU referendum. There was a clear 'leave' vote on 23 June, but it's also clear people weren't voting in favour of diluted environmental standards.

Theresa May also called for Britain to 'come together' to make a success of Brexit. But that would mean supporting a process that, in its most extreme version, would require degrading and debasing environmental standards. If a watering down of environmental protections is on the agenda, it will be fought every step of the way, by Greenpeace and millions of others.