01/04/2018 10:30 BST | Updated 01/04/2018 10:30 BST

Is It Really Possible To Have A 'Green Brexit' We Have Been Promised?

We can't simply sit back and assume vital protections for healthy air, clean beaches and precious wildlife will remain in place

With this week marking one year until Britain officially leaves the EU, HuffPost is running a series of blogs answering big questions still left unanswered about our Brexit future. Today, Greenpeace’s Doug Parr and Rebecca Newsom write on how leaving the EU will impact our environment. Follow the series on #BrexitFuture

It’s often said at green-tinged events that no-one in the Brexit referendum voted for a poorer environment. What they’re saying - correctly - is that there’s no public mandate for lower environmental standards. But this doesn’t mean we can simply sit back and assume vital protections for healthy air, clean beaches and precious wildlife will remain in place without action to defend them.

While Theresa May has confirmed the Government is committed to “enhancing our natural environment for the next generation,” whatever the outcome of Brexit, prominent politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson have also made no secret of their enthusiasm for deregulation, which extends to environmental standards too. At the same time, thanks to an Unearthed investigation, we know that a transatlantic network of libertarian think tanks is lining up to lobby British politicians to ditch strict EU safety standards – including rules on food and pharmaceuticals – in order to secure a sweeping US-UK trade deal. 

Leaving the EU is a juncture to take stock of, and in some cases improve, existing environmental protections. In the case of fishing, we could allocate fishing quota to local, low-impact fishers who are generally much kinder to the marine environment and closer to their communities. And when it comes to agriculture, the UK’s exit from the much-criticised Common Agricultural Policy means we could create a new farming regime that supports payments for public goods like soil health, biodiversity, flood protection and abating climate change. It’s good to hear that Environment Secretary Michael Gove is in principle behind this, although we’ll only know for sure when the detail is made clear.

But Brexit brings with it environmental risks that need to be managed. When the UK joined ‘the Common Market’ 40 years ago, mainstays of environmental protection like the UN Environment Programme had barely got started and green legislation was almost unknown. The UK’s environmental law has developed alongside its membership of the EU. And because air pollution blows over long distances, fish swim from sea to sea, birds fly across many countries and climate change knows no borders much environmental law has made most sense being done collectively at EU level. 

With Brexit, that all needs to be recast or re-written. So it’s no surprise that despite the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs not being thought of as a ‘big’ Whitehall department it gets one of the biggest allocations of Treasury money to prepare for Brexit. Getting it wrong would have big downsides.

What is needed to make sure that we get the “Green Brexit” the government has promised? First, all that EU environmental law - which needs to be brought over into UK law - is only useful if the supporting institutions can deliver on it. We need world-class institutions to uphold environmental law and champion citizens’ rights. This means having political space and independence to operate, the right underpinning legal principles like ‘polluter pays,’ sufficient funding and expertise to do the job well, and recourse to the courts if necessary.

That’s why Greenpeace is supporting Greener UK’s call for a new Environment Act before March 2019, to fill any gaps in environmental protection that might be created through Brexit, and enshrine new, ambitious goals for nature’s recovery for the years ahead. We are also supporting the Greener UK call for amendments to legislation like the Withdrawal Bill to press for a strong, independent UK environmental body (devolved where appropriate). This would replace the role previously played by the European Commission in holding the Government to account, including through legal action, on environmental failure.

Secondly, we can only have a green Brexit if our new trade deals respect those standards.  This is because it is now well established that the barriers to trade are more often about regulation than they are tariffs. Outside of the EU, the UK may pursue new trade deals with countries across the world. In principle, it’s possible to do this while upholding the same high standards at home as we have now. Indeed, it was good to hear Michael Gove confirm this month that “the natural world will be respected and.... the highest ethical and environmental standards... upheld” in any future trade agreements.   

However, there is also a risk that the UK could come under pressure to accept into domestic markets lower standard products from abroad - what’s known as ‘mutual recognition.’ It’s quite clear that on issues like chlorinated chicken, milk from infected cows and chemicals that drive meat production that’s exactly what some politicians and businesses in the US would like. This in turn could place growing pressure on UK industries and businesses to avoid additional costs incurred through stronger domestic regulations and laws, to stay competitive - raising the pressure on British politicians to dilute domestic standards on products and industrial practices. In this context, transparency about trade deals early on and throughout negotiations is critical to ensure rigorous public and parliamentary scrutiny so we can maintain our food and environmental protections. Parliament must also be guaranteed a vote on the ratification of any new trade agreements.

Meanwhile, we must keep the pressure on our politicians and decision-makers over the coming weeks and months to make sure they don’t forget public expectations about these issues. It would be ironic indeed if a referendum that was meant to represent ‘the will of the people’ landed up with results hardly any of the voters actually wanted.

Rebecca Newsom is Head of Politics at Greenpeace UK
Doug Parr is Policy Director at Greenpeace UK