A comprehensive analysis by media has unveiled that crucial legal safeguards for both the environment and human health are being dismantled in the aftermath of Brexit, as the UK diverges from European legislation. The examination shows that the UK is trailing behind the EU in nearly every aspect of environmental regulation, with the EU fortifying its laws while the UK weakens them. Some instances involve the removal of EU-derived environmental protections from the legal framework altogether.
This regression has created a significant gap between the EU and the UK in environmental regulation. There is a lack of transparency regarding the extent of these regressions, as no government body is actively tracking the divergence between the EU and the UK, leaving businesses and environmental groups uninformed. The consequences of these changes include the prediction that water in the UK will be dirtier than in the EU, more pesticides will be present in Britain’s soil, and companies will be permitted to produce products containing chemicals restricted by the EU as dangerous.
Several key policies have undergone changes, causing a divergence between the EU and the UK on environmental regulation. Examples include the removal of EU-derived air pollution laws, the availability of dozens of chemicals banned in the EU for use in the UK, and the non-outlawing of 36 pesticides banned in the EU. The UK is also falling behind in reducing carbon emissions, lacks compensation for those struggling with the costs of the green transition, and is not implementing stricter regulations on battery recycling or deforestation in line with the EU.
Green and centre-right MEPs expressed concerns about the findings, with one describing them as “tragic” and another stating that the divergences were “particularly bad” for businesses operating on both sides of the Channel. The analysis reveals that despite promises from Brexit architects, including Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, to strengthen environmental protections post-Brexit, the opposite is occurring.
Approximately 85% of the UK’s environmental protections are derived from the EU. However, the analysis, based on data from the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), exposes a widening trend of the UK diverging from EU environmental laws, particularly in England. This divergence raises concerns about weakened environmental protection levels and potential violations of the trade and cooperation agreement with the EU, which includes a commitment to maintaining high standards.
In Northern Ireland, the situation is further complicated, as it is required to retain some EU-derived environmental laws under the protocol. This divergence has implications for trade and politics, potentially hindering businesses from exporting to their largest market. Concerns have been raised that certain chemicals allowed in the UK but banned by the EU could lead to the rejection of shipments by European authorities.
Industry insiders, including the Agricultural Industries Confederation, have expressed the difficulty of businesses in dealing with the lack of transparency about regressions from EU environmental law. The absence of a government tracking mechanism for EU divergence is particularly challenging for trade relations between Great Britain, Northern Ireland, and the EU.
Despite these concerns, the UK government defended its approach, with Environment Secretary Steve Barclay asserting that Brexit provides more freedoms and enables the UK to unlock more trade deals. The government claims to be enhancing environmental standards through an ambitious environmental program, including legally binding targets and an environmental improvement plan. However, critics argue that the UK’s policies are either equal to or surpassing EU targets, highlighting the need for dynamic alignment, where the UK’s environmental regulations would automatically mirror those of the EU while maintaining the ability to diverge on specific issues.
The media’s analysis, drawing on data from the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), paints a picture of a concerning trend wherein the UK appears to be diverging from the progressive environmental laws of the EU. Michael Nicholson, the head of UK environmental policy at IEEP UK, emphasized that this backsliding is problematic, not only because it weakens existing environmental protections but also because the trade and cooperation agreement with the EU explicitly commits the UK to maintaining high standards and not regressing after Brexit.
The detailed examination points out at least seven major policy changes that have created a significant gap between the EU and the UK in environmental regulations. These include the removal of EU-derived air pollution laws, the continued use of dozens of chemicals banned in the EU, the failure to outlaw 36 pesticides banned in the EU, and falling behind on carbon emissions reduction as the EU implements carbon pricing. The EU’s efforts to compensate those struggling with the costs of the green transition, implement stricter regulations on battery recycling, and remove deforestation from the supply chain further highlight the growing divergence.
Notably, around 85% of the UK’s environmental protections are derived from the EU. Despite promises from key figures in the Brexit movement, including Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, that environmental protections would be strengthened post-Brexit, the data analyzed by The Guardian suggests the opposite is happening. The absence of a centralized body tracking the divergence has left businesses and environmental groups in the dark about the true extent of these changes.
In Northern Ireland, the situation is even more complex due to the protocol, which requires the region to retain some EU-derived environmental laws. While this theoretically provides more protection from chemical pollution and nature destruction, the regulatory differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK could pose challenges for trade and politics.
Industry insiders, particularly in agriculture, have expressed concerns about the lack of transparency regarding regressions from EU environmental laws. Businesses fear that, as the divergence between the UK and the EU widens, they may no longer be able to export to their most significant market. Shipments are reportedly being returned by European authorities due to the presence of products containing chemicals banned by the EU, with businesses claiming they were not adequately informed of these legal changes.
In response to these concerns, EU politicians have expressed worry about the trade implications, while the Labour Party’s shadow environment secretary, Steve Reed, emphasized that a future Labour government would not allow the UK to fall below EU standards. The idea of dynamic alignment, where the UK’s environmental regulations automatically mirror those of the EU while retaining the power to diverge on specific issues, has garnered some support.
In defense of its approach, the UK government claims that Brexit provides more freedoms and has enabled the unlocking of more trade deals. The Environment Secretary, Steve Barclay, highlighted changes to the EU’s common agricultural policy, suggesting that the UK can now design policies that work for both nature and the farming community.
However, critics argue that the government’s policies are either matching or surpassing existing EU targets. The debate underscores the broader challenges in navigating the complexities of environmental governance post-Brexit, with tensions arising between aspirations for regulatory freedom and commitments to high environmental standards.