Green Brexit unlikely despite government claims, report concludes | Environment

Government promises of a green Brexit have been cast into doubt by a new study that warns of declining protections for water, birds and habitats once Britain leaves the European Union.

The risk assessment – commissioned by Friends of the Earth – found standards are likely to weaken in every sector of environment policy, from chemicals and food safety to air pollution and climate, though the extent of deterioration will depend on the departure deal.

The environment secretary, Michael Gove – a fervent Brexiter – insists the UK will be a global “champion” of green policies after the split on 29 March 2019, but many fear a bonfire of regulations that would result in lower government spending on air and water quality, allowing businesses to cut corners. To avoid a race to the bottom, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has insisted on a “non-regression” clause in any future trade deal, tying the UK to the bloc’s high standards after Brexit.

The new study underscores the need for caution. Academics from Sheffield University, Queen’s University Belfast and the University of East Anglia assessed the post-Brexit risk of governance gaps, coordination problems between Westminster and devolved nations (Scotland, Wales and North Ireland) and the differing levels of protection between strong EU regulations and weaker international commitments by the UK.

The researchers considered 15 environment policies under five different scenarios, ranging from a Norwegian-style arrangement that would keep the UK close to the EU, to a chaotic no-deal scenario that would mark a total separation.

In every case, they predicted a “very high risk” to birds and habitats. Current EU rules – notably Natura 2000 and the habitats directive – oblige member states to set aside conservation areas for wild species. Before these directives, protected sites in the UK were being lost at a rate of 15% a year, but this declined to just 1% a year afterwards, according to the RSPB. Current farming minister George Eustice, however, has said the “spirit crushing” rules would go after Brexit. The authors of the risk assessment also cite comments by Gove and foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, calling for the directives to be reformed, rescinded or weakened.

Water standards are also threatened. In compliance with EU rules, many UK rivers have recovered, serious pollution spills have gone down and natural bathing areas are cleaner. But in all but the Norwegian scenario, the study considers there to be a “high risk” to the water framework and regulations on urban wastewater and groundwater after Brexit. Even if these and other EU rules are kept on the UK statute book, the researchers say they would be “zombified” unless a mechanism is put in place to keep them in force.

Similar worries about policy gaps are evident in every other area including waste disposal, nitrates, fisheries and agriculture. The report says it is not enough to fall back on international environment commitments, which are mostly far laxer than EU standards.

The government claims its recently announced 25-year plan for the environment gives Britain some of the most progressive policies in the world, but the study’s authors say it replaces concrete regulations with vague aspirations.

“The 25-year plan was depressing and concerning,” said Prof Charlotte Burns at Sheffield University. “If the government is not tied down to strict standards, we will see waning investment in the environment and less capacity for NGOs to challenge what they do in the courts.”

She said there was still time for Brexit to produce some positive changes – particularly on fisheries and agricultural policy – but that current policies and ministerial statements gave far more cause for concern than optimism.

Friends of the Earth and other conservation groups have called on the UK government to establish a new environment watchdog, though this has yet to materialise. Campaigners also support calls for a non-regression clause.

“We were promised that Brexit wouldn’t harm our environment – but this analysis shows that under all scenarios currently on the table, this promise will be broken,” said Kierra Box of Friends of the Earth. “We hope this report will spur parliament to make much needed changes to the withdrawal bill currently in the process of going through parliament, to lock in guarantees for our environment that the report authors have found lacking so far.”