Nature could suffer under the terms of the Great Repeal Bill, environmental groups have warned.
A Government White Paper said the Bill, which will end the UK’s membership of the European Union, will ensure the “whole body of existing EU environmental law continues to have effect” in the UK.
However environmentalists said there was also a need to replace EU institutions which currently enforce these laws with new bodies that have effective "teeth".
The White Paper said only that the Government “recognises the need to consult on future changes to the regulatory frameworks”.
However it also reiterated the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge to ensure “we become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it”.
“The UK’s current legislative framework at national, EU and international level has delivered tangible environmental benefits, such as cleaner rivers and reductions in emissions of sulphur dioxide and ozone depleting substances emissions,” the White Paper said.
“Many existing environmental laws also enshrine standards that affect the trade in products and substances across different markets, within the EU as well as internationally.
“The Great Repeal Bill will ensure that the whole body of existing EU environmental law continues to have effect in UK law.
“This will provide businesses and stakeholders with maximum certainty as we leave the EU.
“We will then have the opportunity, over time, to ensure our legislative framework is outcome driven and delivers on our overall commitment to improve the environment within a generation.”
Samuel Lowe, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said the Great Repeal Bill was “necessary” but added that “on its own, it isn’t enough to protect nature and our environment”.
Other EU policies must also be adopted, he said.
“We must commit to bringing over the precautionary principles which underpin our high environmental and wildlife standards,” Mr Lowe said.
“The Government must also create an independent body with teeth to make sure rules which protect nature and the environment are upheld.
“As the recent legal cases on air pollution have shown, the Government does not always uphold its own laws without being pushed.
“The environment has been worryingly absent from the Brexit debate.”
Trevor Hutchings, director of advocacy at WWF, said it was “reassuring” that the White Paper talked about leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation.
“However we now urgently need clarification of how it will achieved this,” he said.
“The White Paper gives far too much discretionary power to Ministers, and during the transition phase this must be robustly scrutinised to prevent any watering down of environmental legislation.
"Only through strong environmental protections will we reverse the current decline in nature, ensure we honour our international commitments, and protect our countryside for future generations.
"The UK Government has so far been dragging its feet on a range of environmental issues, and it needs to act with far greater urgency.”
He criticised the Government for delaying publication of its 25-Year Environment Plan, a Clean Growth Plan, also known as its Emissions Reduction Plan, and other legislation affecting the natural world.
Sam Hall, a senior researcher at conservative think tank Bright Blue, welcomed the White Paper, saying the Government “is right to commit to maintaining environmental regulations after we leave the EU”.
“This provides important reassurance and clarity that Brexit will not lead to scaling back of popular environmental policies,” he said.
“But as well as retaining these EU safeguards, Ministers need to use the opportunity of Brexit to improve the environment.
“The Government should be more ambitious on a range of environmental issues, from strengthening legal limits on air pollution so that they better reflect the known health risks, to refocusing farm payments on environmental schemes such as tree planting.”
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies