What could “no deal” mean for the environment?

© Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

In the face of “no deal” environmental aims are made more challenging. Stephanie Hilborne, The Wildlife Trusts' Chief Executive, explains the effects it could have on the natural world.

In 2017 when MPs voted to trigger Article 50 (the legal mechanism by which countries leave the European Union) the clock started ticking down to agree a deal with the EU. The Government had a deadline to reach a withdrawal agreement before the UK left the European Union. This is 29th March 2019.

Now, with Theresa May’s deal failing to get the necessary support of Parliament, time is running out and the chance of the UK leaving the EU without a deal seems increasingly likely.

There are three ways in which the UK could avoid a “no deal” scenario on 29th March: revoke Article 50, extend Article 50, or reach an agreement with the European Union. If these are not done by 29th March, the UK will be leaving the European Union without a deal.

We want to see cross-party commitment to upholding environmental standards as future trade deals are agreed.  We also want ambitious new laws to put nature into recovery. 

Lots has been said about the impact of “no deal” in recent months, with warnings that leaving without an agreement could cause significant disruption to all sorts of things we take for granted such as the imports of car parts or lettuces. But what would “no deal” mean for the environment? As with everything else, it is hard to tell for sure. What we do know is that the Government is facing a number of other legislative hurdles to ensure the UK is ready to leave the EU without a deal on 29th March. And 80% of our environmental laws come from the EU. Here are some of the potential consequences:

  1. Loss of environmental laws – as a result of pressure from environmental groups such as ours, the Government has committed to transferring EU environment laws into UK law, as far as this is possible.  To do this means passing 93 Statutory Instruments – secondary legislation – to complete the conversion of EU law into UK law.  It also needs to pass primary legislation in the form of a Fisheries Bill to determine who may fish in UK waters and on what terms. The National Audit Office has warned that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will not be able to deliver everything it originally intended for a “no-deal” exit.
  1. Breaches of environmental law - leaving the EU without a deal would leave a gap in our ability to enforce current environmental laws. Currently the European Commission and the European Court of Justice play a key role in ensuring environmental rules are followed.  We managed to get the Government to agree to replace the role these bodies play in ensuring the UK meets its environmental commitments, such as to water quality or wildlife protection. To do this, the Government has committed to creating a new governance body - the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) - you can read more about this here. But this is not yet in place. The Government released its initial plans for this new body in a draft Bill at the end of last year, aiming for the Bill to go to Parliament in the Summer.  If we continue to head towards ‘no deal’ the Government is likely to fast track a number of clauses to ensure the Office of Environmental Protection is in place for when we leave. However, we believe the OEP will be much weaker than current arrangements and will have no independence from government, making it a watchdog without teeth. Co-operative mechanisms with the EU, such as the UK’s participation in the European Environment Agency, would also be lost immediately.
  1. Environmental impacts of trade decisions - “No deal” would bring about a significant change in the UK’s trading relationship with the EU, our largest trading partner. This would be likely to force the UK to seek urgent trade deals with the US and other major economies to offset any disruption. The pursuit of emergency trade deals could create a number of environmental risks:
    1. Roll back of existing environmental regulations to secure deals. US trade negotiators and businesses have already begun to call for such deregulation, particularly on standards of agricultural products.
    2. Avoidance of new domestic environmental regulation to avoid risk of use of dispute mechanisms by future trading partners.
    3. Collapse of farming in the UK due to high tariffs on exports to their biggest market, in turn leading to more food imports with higher environmental impacts; such as beef from Argentina farmed on deforested land and higher carbon emissions from transport etc.
  1. Economic crisis detracting from our environmental crisis – despite civil unrest worldwide over climate change and the loss of biodiversity, there is a real risk that the urgent action needed to reverse the decimation of nature will not happen in the UK if a “no deal” Brexit plunges the country into economic and political turmoil. 

The Government has said it will introduce a ‘world-leading’ Environment Bill in 2019 to achieve its ambition to be the first generation to leave the natural world in a better condition than it found it. We welcome this proposal and are calling for the new Environment Bill to establish ambitious green targets and, crucially, a statutory Nature Recovery Network that creates more space for wildlife to recover and for people to thrive. However, vital political will and momentum to deliver an ambitious and forward-looking piece of environmental legislation could quickly disappear in the wake of “no deal”.

In summary, The Wildlife Trusts are calling for existing protections for wildlife to be upheld and well-enforced, as well as high environmental standards for farming and fishing. We want to see cross-party commitment to upholding environmental standards as future trade deals are agreed.  We also want ambitious new laws to put nature into recovery. 

In the face of “no deal” all these aims are made more challenging. We cannot afford to delay. We must kick-start nature’s recovery and begin to build a wilder future.

Read a full report about the impact of a 'no deal' Brexit on wildlife here