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UK risks losing environmental protections after Brexit, say leading campaigners

Air pollution management and regulation of chemicals are at risk once Britain leaves the European Union, report says

Josh Gabbatiss
Science Correspondent
Monday 22 January 2018 16:15 GMT
A coalition of environmental organisations has said the UK is likely to lose some of its environmental protections following Brexit
A coalition of environmental organisations has said the UK is likely to lose some of its environmental protections following Brexit (Getty)

There is a “significant risk” that the UK’s environmental protections will be reduced following Brexit, according to a new report.

Air pollution management and regulation of chemicals are of particular concern, the study from Greener UK, a coalition of leading environmental organisations, which includes Friends of the Earth, WWF and the National Trust, found.

It suggested there was a “lack of willpower” to maintain high standards for environmental protection following Brexit.

Most of the UK’s measures to protect the environment originate in European Union (EU) law, meaning they could be changed once Britain leaves the 27 nation bloc.

The report’s release comes at a time of increased focus on environmental matters from the Government.

Earlier this month, Theresa May announced the release of a 25-year plan to preserve and improve the environment, and the Government has been considering various initiatives to deal with plastic pollution.

“Michael Gove has been a highly engaged and effective environment secretary and the Prime Minister has promised to put the environment at the centre of government policy,” said Shaun Spiers, chair of Greener UK and executive director of Green Alliance.

“Yet these green aspirations have not carried over to the Government’s narrative on Brexit.”

Greener UK consists of 13 organisations that describe themselves as “united in the belief that leaving the EU is a pivotal moment to restore and enhance the UK’s environment”.

It has previously called on MPs to sign a pledge to establish the UK as a “world leader on the environment” following Brexit, amid concerns that leaving the EU would lead to a “bonfire” of environmental regulations.

This report is the latest verdict from Greener UK’s “Brexit risk tracker”, an effort to monitor progress across all areas of environmental policy as the UK leaves the EU.

The latest results suggest policy areas of particularly high risk include air pollution, chemicals and waste management. Other key areas, which include climate and fisheries, were all ranked “medium risk”, with no policy area described as “low risk”.

“This tracker goes behind the spin and looks at current policy in detail to see if the Government really is safeguarding our environment for the next generation. Despite grand pronouncements, this Government hasn’t answered the tough questions around whether leaving the EU will increase protections for animals, habitats and resource use," said Friends of the Earth campaigner Kierra Box.

“Organisations across the environmental sector will use this tracker to outline the dangers posed to our nature and climate by Brexit. Eighteen months have passed with so little progress, it sounds warning bells to anyone who values our natural world.”

The report follows concerns from various environmental groups that the UK’s environment will suffer without oversight from the EU. Last September the Environmental Policy Forum warned that the Government’s Brexit legislation could “gravely threaten” plans for a green future.

It comes days after Michael Gove was called to Brussels to discuss the UK’s air pollution levels, which still exceed legal EU levels.

The UK is one of a handful of European nations that has been threatened with a case in the European Court of Justice if it does not deal with its air pollution.

Such a measure might not apply to the UK following Brexit.

Responding to the concerns that environmental protections will be “watered down” following the country’s departure from the EU, Mr Gove pledged to set up an independent watchdog to “hold the powerful to account” and deliver a “green Brexit”.

Environmentalists nonetheless remain concerned.

“There are big questions about whether the Government is willing to devote the resources necessary to deliver a green Brexit,” said Mr Spiers. “As the Government has said, Brexit presents opportunities to restore and enhance our environment. This will not happen without adequate resources and better cooperation between the UK Government and the EU, and within the UK.”

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesperson said: “Our 25 Year Environment Plan sets out our plans to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it, and as we deliver a Green Brexit there will no lowering of standards.

“The EU Withdrawal Bill will ensure that existing EU environmental law continues to have effect in UK law as we leave the EU and we have set out plans to consult on creating a new national statement on environmental principles and a new independent and statutory body to hold the Government to account on the environment.”

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