By Molly Scott Cato
For the better half of a decade people have been arguing that Brexit could make Britain greener. This argument seems to be having a renaissance since we left the EU six weeks ago. Just this weekend Politico wrote an article titled “so green Brexit is actually a thing”. Let’s break this down.
The Politico article argues that now that Brexit has happened, competition between the EU and UK could lead to both sides competing to raise environmental standards. This article focused on the UK recently deciding to ban bottom trawling – this is a fishing method where fishing nets are dragged through the bottom of the sea, that damages the marine environment. The UK’s decision to limit some of the ecologically devastating gear in use by European fishing fleets is now being used by environmental groups to put pressure on the EU to do the same.
This article is correct,: there are some ways we can use EU-UK competition to drive up environmental standards in specific areas. Some will recall EU Vice-President Frans Timmermans using the #EUDoesntSuck hashtag in his battle with then environment secretary Michael Gove over the banning of plastic straws.
But let’s look at this in the wider context of environmental progress in the UK outside of the EU. These are piecemeal gains when the risks to the environment are systemic. Here are just some of the risks presented to us outside of the EU. Including three pretty significant outcomes of Brexit.
As we start to negotiate trade deals, we will no longer be negotiating deals as part of the largest trading BLOC in the world. This means that as we negotiate new trade deals globally, we will sometimes have to sign in a position of weakness.
This exposes us to the risk that the Government will sign deals that undercut our environmental standards by allowing other countries to import products produced at lower environmental standards and lower costs.
A crucial House of Lords amendment to the Agriculture Bill, that would have prevented food imports that undercut British standards, was deliberately removed by the UK government when it returned to the House of Commons.
Altogether, these developments suggest that the government is negotiating with few cast-iron commitments to high standards and from a position of weakness on a global scale. Environmental standards will very much be at risk when new trade deals are negotiated.
Outside of the EU we will formulate our own laws to replace EU regulations – and this process has already begun. These new laws could provide us with the opportunity to create a greener Britain, however, it also provides an opportunity for a less green Britain.
We have already seen deliberate but less public deregulation as in the Environment and Agriculture bills. The UK government has already rejected amendments to legislation that would have upheld high standards, including by strengthening the role of the Trade & Agriculture Commission in scrutinising new trade deals. This shows that further environmental deregulation is a strong possibility in the months and years to come.
LOSS OF EU STANDARDS
Leaving the EU means that we inevitably lose the protection of EU environmental standards. The level playing field clause provides us with a small reassurance that we are unlikely to revert back on all of the standards we had as part of the EU. However, we still don’t know how the level playing field agreement will work, and there is likely to be divergence from the EU at some point. It is possible for the UK to diverge on environmental standards, but this will incur retaliation from the EU in tariffs. The ball is entirely in the UK Government’s court to decide whether these tariffs are worth it. Already, just by leaving the EU we have lost the over-arching Polluter Pays and Precautionary principles.
Ultimately, the best way to make the biggest positive environmental impact is as part of the massive EU bloc rather than just the UK. The climate and environmental crisis does not respect borders, and it is a global problem that will require a global solution. Working as a bloc to tackle climate change together was a step towards this.
Molly Scott Cato
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