Following the passing of the Withdrawal Agreement Act, Brexit will go ahead on today, 31st January, and the UK will begin the process of cutting ties with the European Union, its laws and its institutions. But what does Brexit mean for the UK’s environment?
EU Environmental Law – a force for good
Most of the UK’s environmental laws are derived from European law. From water and air quality, to nature conservation and climate change, the EU environmental law framework is renowned as one of the strongest in the world.
The European Commission and European Court of Justice have also played leading roles enforcing environmental laws and ensuring they are fully implemented by member states.
What happens to UK environmental laws after Brexit?
The UK’s relationship with EU laws, courts and institutions fundamentally changes after Brexit. Once the implementation period is over (it’s currently set to run until 31st December 2020) the UK government will be able to set its own targets, policies and laws on environmental protection.
None of the Brexit legislation so far contains a non-regression clause meaning the government can set weaker environmental regulations and standards than those currently imposed by EU law. This means environmental protection could get worse instead of better.
The Withdrawal Agreement Act includes a clause that gives ministers the power to authorise any UK court to overturn judgments of the Court of Justice of the EU – meaning current interpretations of environmental law could be changed or challenged. This includes current EU and UK case law on air quality, meaning people’s health could be at risk.
What is ClientEarth doing?
The Environment Bill, going through Parliament currently, will be new environmental legislation aimed to filling the governance gap created by Brexit. It will set out a new framework for environmental law post-Brexit and establish a new environmental watchdog to hold the government and other public bodies to account.
We’ll be increasing the pressure to ensure this bill provides the necessary protection to the UK environment.
We’re working with Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major environmental organisations including WWF, Friends of the Earth and the National Trust to call on the UK government to commit to a non-regression clause in the upcoming Environment Bill.
We are also calling for a stronger mechanism for the enforcement of environmental law in the UK.
Brexit and the Environment – An opportunity for change
Although Brexit undoubtedly presents many risks to the environmental law currently safeguarding the UK’s wildlife and habitats, it also provides the Government with the opportunity to become a world-leader on environmental protection.
ClientEarth will continue to lobby the Government to step up and commit to not only retaining and enforcing the levels of protection we currently have but to go beyond this and establish stronger laws to protect nature and human health in the UK.