Brexit White Paper: Government underlines vision for ‘cleaner, healthier environment’

The UK Government has today (2 February) released its much-anticipated Brexit White Paper document, providing assurances that the nation will remain a "leading actor" on climate change and environmental policy following its imminent departure from the European Union (EU).

The 75-page White Paper, published a day after MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour to trigger Article 50, outlines the Government’s formal strategy on how it proposes to leave the European Union (EU).

The Paper has been praised by green groups for reiterating a commitment to ensure the Government becomes the first “to leave the environment in a better state than we found it”, with specific mentions of the future of farming and marine protections.

It also pledges to use the upcoming Great Repeal Bill to translate the current framework of EU environmental regulation into UK law once the nation leaves the bloc. 

The Paper reads: “We will continue to be a leading actor, working with European and other international partners, in global efforts to tackle major challenges, including climate change.

“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.”

With around 75% of all UK environment law deriving from EU regulations, environmental campaigners have continually stressed the importance that rules protecting Britain’s natural environment are not lost during and after Brexit negotiations. This Paper arrives months after Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom admitted that a third of green regulations “won’t be easy to transpose”.

Policy opportunity

Within the Paper is a vision Britain to establish a “world-leading” food and farming industry. The current CAP scheme, which accounts for around 40% of the EU budget, has courted significant controversy for discriminating against non-EU imports and holding back sustainable development.

“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,” today’s Paper states.

Also mooted is a “mutually beneficial” deal that works for the UK and the EU’s fishing communities, and “delivers a cleaner, healthier and more productive marine environment”. Prime Minister Theresa May has previously been urged by the business community to adopt “common-sense” fishing policies.

Brexit offers an opportunity for a “cleaner, healthier environment, benefiting people and the economy”, the Paper goes on to state, and the UK will remain “at the forefront of collective endeavours” in clean energy. Climate action will be underpinned by the targets set out in the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008, the Paper notes. 

‘Devil in the detail’

The Paper has been received with cautious optimism by environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth (FoE). “The commitment to bring current environmental regulation into UK and devolved law is welcome but, as always, the devil will be in the detail,” FoE activist Samuel Lowe said.

“We need more information regarding how this will work in practice, and additional measures and institutions will be needed to ensure it continues to be properly upheld and enforced. The Great Repeal Bill must ensure that any future changes are made by parliament, and not on the whim of ministers.

“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.”

The release of the White PAper comes just a day after Labour MP and Shadow Defra Secretary Rachael Maskell resigned from the Shadow Cabinet following Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to impose a three-line whip and force his MPs to vote for invoking Article 50. In her resignation speech, she cited a lack of a clear climate action plan in the Government’s Brexit strategy.

“I believe that Theresa May’s Brexit ‘plan’ is creating an unjustifiable level of risk at a time of national and international uncertainty and volatility, with silence on national security measures, no mention of climate change mitigation or environmental protections, and no guarantee of good jobs or employment rights,” Maskell said.

Article 50 will be triggered at the end of March, formally initiating the UK’s departure from the EU, which must be completed within two years.

George Ogleby & Luke Nicholls

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