Green Brexit? New research finds weaker environmental protections than already exist under EU law

  • Report finds waterways at very high risk from ‘zombification’
  • Birds and natural habitats could fare particularly badly
  • Study concludes government’s 25-year environmental plan won’t be enough following Brexit


A new report published today (12 April 2018) has found that the UK faces weaker environmental protections following Brexit.

The independent analysis, commissioned by Friends of the Earth and led by a University of Sheffield academic, explores how the environment will fare following the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union through an assessment of the risks to current policy and governance systems – focusing on the Norwegian, Canadian, Turkish and ‘no deal’ Brexit models.

The study found one of the major areas of concern is the UK’s water. Largely thanks to EU directives, England now enjoys the cleanest bathing waters since records began. Incidents of serious pollution are going down and rivers are reviving. However, the report shows that under all assessed scenarios, water faces high risks. Regulatory gaps raise the prospect of ‘zombification’ of UK environmental policy: where EU policies are retained and exist on the UK statute book, but without a system of governance to enforce them.

The report also reveals the impact on nature. The Birds and Habitats Directives have successfully protected vulnerable species, as well as crucial habitats like Dartmoor and Snowdonia. However, of all the environmental policies and scenarios reviewed in the report, the Habitats and Birds Directives were found to be most at risk.

The report’s author, Professor Charlotte Burns from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Politics, said: “The government committed to a green Brexit but our analysis demonstrates that its delivery will be challenging. Every Brexit scenario carries risks for our environment with nature protection being particularly at risk even under the soft, ‘Norwegian’ option.”

The study, by academics from Sheffield, Queen's University Belfast and the University of East Anglia, finds that risk under the ‘Norwegian’ model is lower than in other scenarios, as much of EU environmental law would still apply. At the other end of the risk scale lies the ‘chaotic’ no deal scenario, which was found to pose very high risks to the environment across the board.

The report recommends:

  • An environmental non-regression clause and a reference to a new ‘environmental advancement principle’ that underlines the importance of pursuing ever higher environmental standards after exit day should be included in any future trade agreement to prevent regulatory zombification at national and EU levels.
  • Given the consistent environmental and economic risk associated with the ‘chaotic’ no deal, this outcome should be avoided.
  • To ensure policies brought forward to implement the 25 Year Environmental Plan have timelines and targets at least as ambitious as those currently offered by the EU.
  • To ensure the language employed in new legislation is clear with enforceable targets with limited or no room for discretionary interpretation.
  • The UK government and devolved nations should work collaboratively to put in place effective and appropriately consultative and open co-ordination arrangements that allow for the creation of suitable joint frameworks for developing UK-wide environmental policy.
  • By exit day, to establish a new watchdog whose work involves and is coordinated across the four UK nations, is sufficiently resourced and has robust scrutiny and enforcement powers.

Kierra Box, Brexit campaign lead from Friends of the Earth, said the report made for ‘worrying reading’.

She added: “We were promised that Brexit wouldn’t harm our environment - but this analysis shows that under all scenarios currently on the table, this promise will be broken.

“Brexit is now just a year away, but we’re not prepared. Report after report is showing that decision-makers have not identified ways to make sure that the UKs future relationship with the EU locks in environmental protections – in fact, they’ve set down negotiating red lines that actively stand in the way of a ‘green Brexit’.

“The legal safeguards are not in place for nature and the climate. And promises of action are just backed up by more promises of action. Time is running out.”

Read the full report

Additional information

Brexit and Environment network

The University of Sheffield

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The University of Sheffield
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