Brexit white paper offers little clarity on the environment

3rd February 2017

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Adam Roberts

The white paper on the UK exiting the EU largely restates previous commitments such as that all EU law will be transferred into domestic legislation. But it does reveal the UK wants to continue to play a role in bodies like the European standards organisations and European Chemicals Agency.

The government will keep its system of five-yearly carbon budgets after the UK leaves the EU and aim to ‘drive climate ambition’ globally, according to a white paper on Brexit.

However, the document gives precious little clarity on how Brexit will change the UK’s approach to other environmental issues.

The Great Repeal Bill (GRB) will convert the entire EU acquis – the body of European law – directly into domestic legislation, the white paper says. This reaffirms a commitment made by Theresa May last autumn. ‘This allows businesses to continue trading in the knowledge that the rules will not change significantly overnight,’ the white paper says.

Although there is no reference in the document to how the government plans to deal with the third of EU environmental laws that Defra has conceded will be difficult to transfer directly into UK regulations, it does state that the GRB would ‘enable changes to be made by secondary legislation to the laws that would otherwise not function sensibly once we left the EU’.

It also hints there will be changes ahead to such laws after Brexit is complete: ‘Once we have left the EU, parliament…will then be able to decide which elements of that law to keep, amend of repeal,' it says.

'We want to take this opportunity to develop over time a comprehensive approach to improving our environment in a way that is fit for our specific needs.’

Most environmental issues are dealt with in a simple sentence or two. On energy, for instance, the white paper says the UK will try to remain ‘on the forefront of collective endeavours’ to develop clean energy technologies through research and development funding.

The government is also still ‘considering all options for the UK’s future [energy] relationship with the EU’ to avoid disruption to trade between the UK and the continent.

On farming, the document says ‘leaving the EU offers the UK a significant opportunity to design new, better and more efficient policies for delivering sustainable and productive farming, land management and rural communities.’

One of the longest sections of interest to environment professionals concerns business and product standards. British standards body BSI will retain its membership of international equivalents after Brexit and the white paper says it expects the UK to continue to play a leading role in driving the development of global standards.

The government is also working with BSI to ensure its relationship with the European Standards Organizations continues to support a productive, open and competitive business environment in the UK.

Similarly, the government will also discuss its future status and arrangements with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as part of the Brexit negotiations.

Friends of the Earth welcomed the commitment by the government to bring current environmental regulation into UK and devolved law but said more detail was required.

‘The fact the government has chosen not to throw the baby out with the bath water and leave open the possibility of remaining part of certain EU regulatory bodies is sensible. Continuing to maintain a level regulatory playing field on issues such as chemical safety with our European neighbours is not only good for people and the environment, it makes sense for business too,’ said campaigner Samuel Lowe.

The white paper is available here.


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