No-deal Brexit: environmental impact
Some people say that breaking away from Europe will be good for our environment, deal or no deal.
They say we can make our own laws – after all, didn't we introduce the Clean Air Act that defeated the London smog. And the Climate Change Act that committed us to reducing global warming emissions. As well as bring doorstep recycling to every home.
Yes we did, but only after a combination of rebel MPs, widespread support and organisations like Friends of the Earth backed the government into a corner.
We've achieved some great things but our government has a history of being reluctant to act.
The government needs pushing
Through laws, constant pressure and the threat of fines, the EU has been the main force driving the UK government to clean up its act. 80% of our environmental laws come from the EU. It’s meant beaches safe for bathing, cleaner air and more protection for nature. Good news for wildlife and our health.
That’s not to say that the EU is perfect, for example, the Common Agricultural Policy has promoted factory-style farming at the expense of the climate and nature. And Brexit would present some real opportunities for us to improve it.
The thing is, there is little evidence that the UK will do right by the environment where the EU has done wrong.
The UK was the last European country to stop dumping raw sewage into the sea. Before we joined the EU, we were losing 15% of our protected nature sites a year and our pollution was causing acid rain.
Even inside the EU, the UK government has supported GM crops, weaker pesticide regulations, and weaker habitats protection. Fortunately it didn't get its way.
All this adds up to us needing to keep the protections we’ve got until the government replaces them – not a no-deal exit where environmental rules stop working properly and we’re just left with promises (more on this in a minute).
No deal – no thanks
Exiting in March without a deal means no handover period.
That means the hundreds of EU laws protecting our health and the environment will vanish or stop working overnight. We know the government has committed to replacing them all, but what about in the meantime?
With no deal and no handover period, we’ll also be left without anyone enforcing the rules. That means no consequences if the government breaks its own environment laws. The government's proposed watchdog, which won't be in place on exit day, would be too weak to be effective – lacking independence and clout.
With no deal, UK governments (present and future) will be able to lower established environmental standards as and when it suits them – for example, when setting up new trade deals with countries wanting to push poorer-quality imports on us. Closing this loophole means agreeing a ‘non-regression clause’ with the EU, but this won’t happen if we leave without a deal.
A no-deal Brexit is full of promises that we can’t rely on
A no-deal Brexit is nothing more than a lot of promises. Promises to properly transfer all EU protections into UK law. Promises to set up a body that has the power and independence to stop the government breaking its own laws. Promises that we won’t water down existing environmental standards to strike new trade deals with countries like the US.
We can’t predict the priorities of future governments. They could be hugely ambitious and keep all their promises to beat climate change and restore nature. They could equally trade away our protections in a deregulatory race to the bottom.
The UK’s track record on the environment suggests that we can’t guarantee a perfect outcome. So we need to make sure current protections are locked in and that ambition can only go up, not down.
It's correct to say the UK has overcome adversity in the past, and that we could do it again. But it's indisputable that our environment is in a fragile state and can’t wait for the UK to emerge from the chaos of a no deal. It also can’t be left vulnerable to the impulses of future politicians.
No deal could lead to more sewage spills at our beaches
The EU's 1976 Bathing Water Directive – and successful legal action by the European Commission – has made our beaches as clean as they are today.
Now over 96% of our beaches are safe to swim in. But it wasn't easy going. The UK fought hard to maintain the right to continue polluting.
Successive UK governments exploited whatever loophole they could find. They pumped untreated sewage into our ocean until 1998 – longer than any other European country.
Sewage can still spill out at our beaches when the sewage system is overloaded. This supposedly happens during periods of intense rainfall – though there are concerns that this is happening regularly, including during low rainfall or none at all.
In 2018 there were over 1,300 sewage pollution events at 330 of the nation’s favourite beaches.
It’s a worrying sign that the government is becoming complacent about the standard of our beaches. But it could get a lot worse under a no-deal scenario, where the government will be under no legal pressure to maintain and improve UK bathing water. Even more so considering that climate change will increase downpours of rain in our region.
No deal makes it harder to fight air pollution
Air pollution causes up to 36,000 early deaths in the UK.
The EU can impose a multimillion pound fine on our government (or indeed any member nation) if it doesn’t get serious about cleaning up illegal levels of air pollution.
As explained above, we won’t have an enforcer in place if we leave without a deal. So the government will be under much less pressure to meet targets set out in law. And even when we do get a watchdog, it doesn't sound like it's going to be strong enough or independent enough to challenge illegal behaviour.
No deal increases the risk of unsafe chemicals getting into the environment
As a member of the EU, we’re protected by REACH. This is the most advanced system in the world for ensuring chemicals are safe for human health and the environment.
Without a deal and a handover period to spend time replacing REACH, we'd be in the dark.
The day after a no-deal Brexit, a company could launch a new chemical and we wouldn’t know what to do with it or be able to properly regulate it.
We wouldn’t have access to the vast amount of research in the REACH database. Without that knowledge it will be much easier for businesses to win legal challenges against bans on chemicals – such as pesticides linked to harming bees.
The REACH database covers 21,000 chemicals. It’s highly unlikely the UK will be able to replicate it on its own.
A less-effective UK system would be more open to abuse with companies able to sell substances in the UK that are banned by the EU.
No deal pushes us to burn and dump mountains of waste instead of recycling
The UK is one of the EU’s biggest waste exporters.
For years, we’ve been offloading our waste mainly on to Europe. And for that reason, we don’t have a well-developed setup in place to encourage recycling and reuse.
No deal could mean all that waste getting stuck in the UK – at least in the short term – where it would end up buried in sprawling rubbish dumps or burnt in polluting incinerators.
Faced with a build-up of rubbish, we wouldn’t have time to adapt and create a more eco-friendly way of managing waste in the UK.
No deal is bad news for wildlife and protected habitats
Back in 2005 the UK was allowing the trade of protected species collected elsewhere in Europe. It contravened the law, so the EU put a stop to it.
If we leave without a deal, we won’t be able to challenge the government for breaking environmental laws, including ones that protect nature. That is, until a watchdog is set up. Who sets that up? The government. And as explained above, we don’t know when that will happen or how effective it will be.
No deal allows for lower food and animal-welfare standards
Under a no-deal Brexit, any present or future UK government will be able to regress our environmental standards. There will be no international agreement in place to prevent that.
At the same time, chaotically falling out of the EU would leave us scrambling for trade deals.
Potential trading partners would heap huge pressure on us to accept products that don’t make the grade. This could include meat from animals raised in more-environmentally-damaging ways.
The government is already facing calls from US trade negotiators to lower our food standards by accepting chlorinated chicken.
Worse still, poorer-quality imports would undercut British producers – leading to pressure for us to adopt the same lower-quality practices here in the UK.
No deal could increase pollution from exhaust fumes
Without a deal, no one knows what kind of custom checks we’ll get at Dover. Some reports are claiming it could take hours to check each lorry. Even if drivers face a small increase in processing time at our ports, it could lead to giant lorry parks and traffic jams.
That would mean more air pollution from climate-changing exhaust emissions – and welfare concerns for exported animals stuck at the border.
No deal might force Northern Ireland to make electricity from dirty diesel
Northern Ireland doesn’t have its own energy market. It shares one with the Republic of Ireland. One market serves the whole island.
It’s not clear how that would change under a no-deal Brexit. But it appears that the government isn’t taking any chances. According to a leaked document, it’s planning to send a flotilla of barges to the coast of Northern Ireland, armed with diesel-powered electricity generators.
Sounds crazy, but if the government is serious, then this would ramp up air pollution and contribute to climate change.
We need to take a no-deal Brexit off the table.
Overnight our wildlife sites would become more vulnerable, and our climate and air quality would be at greater risk. It’s unthinkable, especially when you consider the more extreme weather we’re experiencing because of global warming, and the rate at which we’re already destroying nature.
No deal. No thanks.