Four years following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, a Brexit trade deal was finalised on 24 December 2020, coming into force on 1 January 2021. While the mainstream debate has primarily revolved around issues of immigration, trade, and even on “fish”, something that has been arguably under-reported – to the dismay of activists and campaigners– is the potential impact that Brexit will have on the climate, and specifically on UK environment policy.
Environmental challenges post-Brexit have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, with respect to socio-economics and the environmental racism that has surfaced. In this light, it is important to look at whether the promises of the government live up to the reality and indeed the future effects that Brexit could have on the UK’s environmental policy. In 2019, polling found that environmental issues were amongst the top three priorities for voters. Indeed, in the Brexit deal itself, both the UK and the EU have promised Net Zero by 2050, whereby if this promise is not upheld, there is the possibility for the postponing or the cancellation of the trade agreement. To replace the EU Regulations on the environment, the British government is touting the Environment Bill, with its contents setting out the legally binding rules for targets on water, air, biodiversity and waste. Despite issues of impartiality coming into play, it is the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP)- a supposed independent watchdog – who will oversee whether those targets are met by the government. Campaigners have criticised this OEP for a potential of bias on the basis that it is government members who will appoint the Chair and board members, while its budget will also be controlled by the government. Indeed, this is a stark contrast from when breaches of [EU] environmental regulations could be legally enforced by the Court of Justice of the European Union. In this respect, it is paramount to delve deeper into the challenges that lie ahead, if the UK wants to achieve environmental justice in a post-Brexit system.
As a direct result of Brexit, there are an array of challenges that lie ahead and a number of unanswered questions regarding the impact that it will have on the UK. As briefly touched upon above, these mainly concern the ‘fragmentation and the loss of a coordinated regional framework on environmental issues’, and the ‘untangling of UK Courts from EU jurisprudence on access to environmental justice’. These are problematic for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, as regards the former, there is the real worry that Brexit will aggravate already existing international divisions on environmental justice. While it is already incredibly difficult to build a global consensus, let alone a regional one, Brexit heightens the risk of the UK moving its environmental policies away from EU ones. Furthermore, through the EU, states are provided the opportunity to discuss their respective expertise on this policy area, something of which makes way for a more cooperative framework. It seems unlikely that the UK will retain its seat at the [environmental] negotiation table.
Moreover, by virtue of the CJEU arena, campaigners have been able to access environmental justice such as in Slovak Bears case and European Commission v United Kingdom, when the European Commission took legal action against the UK because the government remained steadfastly apathetic in the face of a public health crisis caused by air pollution, which is linked to the deaths of 50,000 British citizens every year. However, Section 6(1)(a)(2) of the Withdrawal bill stipulates that UK courts are “not bound by any principles laid down, or any decisions made, on or after exit day by the European Court” and that it “need not have regard” to such decisions, while Section 6(4) states that the UK will no longer be circumscribed by ‘any retained EU case law or domestic precedents based on EU law’. Essentially, this signifies that the EU’s comprehensive jurisprudence on the environment will no longer be applicable. It is unclear how the UK will go forward regarding environmental justice. While there are of course plentiful opportunities in affirming and honing UK environmental policies for the better, environmental activists and campaigners fear that the government may go the other way. An example in this respect is the recent announcement from the government that a poisonous pesticide that kills bees, which is illegal in the EU due to the importance of bees for our ecosystem, may be used on sugar beet in England, while in July, the Prime Minister expressed his dissatisfaction at “conservation causing construction delays”. Despite promises from the former Environment Minister Michael Gove of a “Green Brexit”, there is little that points to their guarantee.
While the above briefly delineates what could lie ahead, it is also vital to look at the current reality. There is no doubt that the COVID19 crisis has not only exacerbated environmental issues, but also exposed [socio-environmental] injustices to the forefront. In Britain, BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) people have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Initial theories somewhat lazily attributed this to genetics, yet there is the growing identification that one of the root causes here may indeed be something termed by experts as “environmental racism” . According to research, ‘people of colour suffer more air pollution than white residents’; in fact, a 2019 report found that ‘BAME Britons are exposed to particulate matter pollution at rates 19-29% higher than White Britons’. It is vital in this light to note the detrimental impact that poor air quality poses to respiratory conditions, thus increasing the likelihood of death from COVID19. Social injustices with its links to racism in the UK, affects every single iota of society; environmental injustices in this respect are not an anomaly. According to Professor Agyeman, the strive towards racial environmental justice needs to be tackled from the bottom down, as opposed to from centralised state. While grassroots activists are key in order to further social justice through mass movements, it is also paramount that the government listens to the demands.
With an economy that the government will try to revitalise through any means necessary, weaker monitoring mechanisms as a result of Brexit and a government that seems to ignore scientific expertise for political ideology, it remains to be unclear how eagerly this current administration will engage and undertake such demands. The precarity of the situation regarding the UK and the climate means that the voices of activists and campaigners will be extremely important to take heed to. Important UK based conservation and green groups include RSPB, Wildlife Trusts, Rewilding Britain , the Greener Earth Project, and the Ella Robertson Family Foundation, which raises awareness on air pollution. These environmental groups, amongst others not listed here, do incredibly important work concerning the environment in the UK. For those able, please consider donating to or joining such organisations.
Malaka is a British-Egyptian student of Public International Law (LLM), in which she is developing her expertise in human rights and migration law. For her dissertation, she is currently undertaking research on corporate accountability of human rights, with respect to Indigenous Peoples.