Brexit may have has dominated the headlines for months but the crescendo is rapidly approaching: Tuesday’s vote in parliament will decide whether Theresa’s May’s plan stands or falls. But there are still a plethora of options on the table: from May to Norway, backing the deal to amending it, voting it down to calling for a People’s Vote, the choice is anything but clear.
But whatever happens, one thing is certain: a ‘no-deal’ would be a disaster for the environment and should be taken off the table.
The world is warming. Climate chaos is already impacting people and wildlife in the UK. Our birds, animals and nature are in rapid decline. We’re seeing the end of species in our lifetime. We know our environment isn’t in the best shape already. And we know the UK would still be the ‘dirty man of Europe’ if it wasn’t for EU legislation. Our membership of the EU resulted in the government improving air quality, implementing protections for special natural habitats and species, and taking action to prevent companies in the UK flushing raw sewage straight out into our seas. This is, in part, why new research from Professor Charlotte Burns shows that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would be catastrophic for the UK’s environment.
There would be some dramatic and immediate consequences of crashing out of the EU on March 29. The government has admitted that they haven’t got all the practical arrangements in place to deal with these. In fact, they’ve been forced to confess there are some they’ve barely even planned for. From delays checking food and animals at ports and the implications of this for food and welfare standards, to increased air pollution in Kent following lengthy border queues and the transformation of Dover into a car park, or waste and recycling piling up when the UK can no longer export its rubbish to Europe, our environment would face an immediate precipice. And of course, there are big questions around the Irish border which need resolving not only for the environment but for the integrity of the island and the Good Friday Agreement.
But it’s the longer term issues that mean a ‘no deal’ Brexit looks especially bleak for the climate, wildlife and our health. Gaps in governance would mean we can’t hold the government to account for their poor environmental performance. So if they fail to maintain progress on cleaning up our dirty air in the future, we won’t be able to take them to court as we’ve done before. Gaps in regulation would mean that where experts currently make sure that chemicals, goods and medicines are safe, the UK would be left just with empty space. All our current EU safeguards would be gone, and we could see chemicals that may harm pollinators, human health and biodiversity on supermarket shelves and in fields. And there are ongoing risks to our air and water quality as future governments will be free to backslide on current environmental protections if ‘non regression’ isn’t included in a deal. This means our standards would be free to fall in comparison with the rest of Europe. So much for the UK as a global environmental and climate leader.
Michael Gove has made lots of lovely promises about a new environment act to ‘maintain and enhance’ environmental protections as we Brexit, including a new watchdog.
But in a ‘no deal’ scenario, the political pressure to ‘get the economy moving’ will trump all of this, and pressure will mount to lower food and welfare standards, to secure quick and dirty trade deals. And I use the word ‘Trump’ deliberately. In such a scenario, it’s very easy to imagine Mr Gove’s promises fading away.
Anything could happen in the days and weeks ahead. But anyone that cares about the environment should be working to avoid ‘no deal’ at all costs. With MPs lining up to vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal in just a few days, it’s clear that this vote is going to determine the future of our environment for years to come. We need our representatives to find a way to protect us from the ‘no deal’ threat – and they are running out of time to keep proposing and arguing about new ideas that don’t cut the mustard.
From the Conservative MP Dominic Grieve to the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas – politicians, people and academics all agree that ‘no deal’ is the worst option possible for us and our environment - and we cannot let it happen. So, it’s up to parliament to take charge and rule it out, once and for all. We need a back-up plan, a workable plan B, and MPs need to come together and create it, ASAP.
We’ve always said remaining inside the EU was better for our environment. But if the UK leaves, the most vital thing is to retain the protections we currently have and have the time and space to build on those and set out a positive ambition for the future. ‘No deal’ puts all we have now in jeopardy and offers the worst possible context for an ambitious future. If MPs can’t guarantee 100% that ‘no deal’ is off the table, the UK must remain part of the EU until it is.