Is the UK on track for a green Brexit?

It's been a big week for Brexit news, with the UK kick-starting trade talks with Australia and progressing negotiations with the US and EU. But concerns that the promised 'green' Brexit will fail to materialise are mounting against a backdrop of no-deal warnings and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Is the UK on track for a green Brexit?

As we move into the second half of June

Stories regarding the Covid-19 crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement have continued to dominate headlines this week, and rightly so. But Brexit is beginning to once again weigh heavy on the minds of journalists, policymakers and the general public, given that just six months remain of the UK’s initial transition period.  

As EU lawmakers meet today (19 June) to firm up the specifics of the bloc’s €750bn recovery fund, which it claims will be intertwined with its Green Deal ambition to reach net-zero by 2050, the UK is progressing trade talks with the EU, US and Australia.

Before these talks began, concerns that the UK would fail to deliver its promised ‘green’ Brexit had been rising for some time. Conservative Ministers touted leaving the EU as an opportunity to strengthen key provisions on agriculture, waste and emissions. But critics have warned that the UK may be forced to backtrack on standards to remain competitive, that it does not have enough time or resources to enshrine adequate protections in law, and that the EU may not agree to a good deal if the UK is seen to be outdoing EU standards by too high of a margin.  

The finalisation of Boris Johnson’s withdrawal plan late last year provided some balm for the situation, given its headline promise to leave Union laws through a set of ‘level playing field’ commitments on the environment and workers rights. But research this week from a coalition of 13 of the UK’s major environmental organisations warned that the UK is in danger of failing to meet that ambition.

With all of this in mind, edie rounds up all of the key green Brexit happenings of recent weeks.

Charities warn that every part of the environment is at risk

Greener UK, a coalition of 13 of the UK’s largest environmental organisations, this week published its latest green policy risk tracker. The tracker states that there is a high risk of environmental policies weakening across the board post-Brexit, or of key policy ambitions going unmet due to insufficient supporting actions.

A ‘high risk’ rating was given in all eight of the tracker’s policy areas, which are air pollution; chemicals; water; waste and resources; farming and land use; climate and energy; fisheries and nature protection.

“There are considerable environmental risks if an agreement is not reached at all, including overfishing and more ‘mackerel wars’, and high tariffs placed on UK food exports that provoke domestic deregulation,” Greener UK states. “There are also significant risks with finalising a poor deal that does not include non-regression of standards and close co-operation on chemicals and climate change. We have to conclude that the environmental risks remain high, and in many areas are intensifying.”

The tracker does note that progress has been made to improve the Environment Bill in recent months, with better powers having been added twice since September 2019. Moreover, the Agriculture Bill has been progressing to time thanks to virtual voting. But these moves ultimately do not cancel out poor progress or regression elsewhere, Greener UK has concluded.

Greener UK members include the RSPB, National Trust, Wildlife Trusts and Friends of the Earth. 

Eustice says key provisions will be made, despite pandemic

The Greener UK report was the second damning document for Defra in as many weeks, after official Government figures showed that the UK is failing to deliver progress against some of the 25-Year Environment Plan’s key aims. 

As such, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) summoned environment secretary George Eustice for an evidence session this week. During the session, Eustice was asked whether the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), the UK’s post-Brexit environmental watchdog, would be “ready and operational” by the end of December. MPs voiced concerns that the Covid-19 pandemic may have stalled work to create the new body and to deliver other crucial post-Brexit provisions.

Eustice said his team will commence the recruitment process for the OEP chair this month and are working for further progress on the Environment Bill “as soon as is practical”, but noted that there are “a number of important bills needed” around Covid-19 and broader Brexit preparations, adding pressure to timetables.

“If we don’t have royal assent by the end of the year, we can still proceed with recruitment in the initial months… and designing its enforcement strategy and general strategy,” Eustice said, claiming that the OPE “could be run on an administrative basis until the legal powers kick in”.

Department for International Development/ Foreign Office merger sparks concerns

Boris Johnson has been keen to see DFiD and the FCO merged for some time, and this week confirmed that the merger will be completed by September. Johnson told the Commons that keeping the departments separate was “outdated”, whereas merging them would ensure “maximum value” for taxpayers and better reflect “UK interests”.

But the move drew much criticism from within the Conservative Party, from the opposition and from external groups.  Less than a week ago, the International Development Committee published a document advising against the merger. Moreover, figures from bodies working to advance human rights and climate justice overseas claim they were not consulted on the decision.

2019 saw two major announcements – that DFID was planning to directly spend £190m on climate adaptation and mitigation in developing nations every year, and that £1.44bn will be jointly allocated to such initiatives by Government departments over the course of this Parliament.

Exact details as to how these commitments will be kept under the new structure are yet to be confirmed. However, a No 10 spokesperson told edie that these pledges would be fulfilled. “Merging the two departments will allow us to seize the opportunities ahead as we prepare to host COP26 next year by strengthening the work we do with international partners,” they added.

No progress on EU’s Green Finance Taxonomy

Talks to enshrine the EU’s Green Finance Taxonomy in UK law stalled this week. The framework aims to eliminate greenwashing by laying out strict and agreed criteria as to what constitutes green finance, and to spur investment in line with net-zero targets. But its technical standards will not be published until after the transition period ends, meaning the Treasury may opt-in or out of certain parts of the regime. In the event that the Taxonomy is not adopted, the UK’s own Green Finance Strategy could be bolstered.

Progress on the UK’s post-Brexit emission trading framework was also reportedly stalling, with EU negotiators wary that the UK’s system would undercut the bloc’s own carbon market. However, an agreement was reached this week to reduce the existing EU ETS cap by 5% within a year. Further reductions will be needed as the UK approaches its 2050 net-zero deadline.

Green groups wary on agriculture implications as talks with US progress

In early July, media reports began emerging which suggested that the UK is willing to backtrack on its pledge to keep “chlorinated chicken” off of UK shelves in order to secure a trade deal with the US.

Since then, sources have claimed that Ministers are also willing to import beef from the US which does not comply with UK standards around hormones and animal welfare.

In response, the National Farmers Union (NFU) has set up a petition calling for Ministers to ensure that no food produced in ways that would be illegal domestically is imported. The Government said that any imported food from the US will have tariffs applied in order to protect domestic farmers from competition but the public consensus is that this will not be sufficient – more than one million people have signed the NFU petition.

edie’s own poll on UK-US trade talks revealed that almost three-quarters (72%) of readers think negative environmental impacts are the most likely outcome.

What about Australia?

If you’ve been online this week, you’ll have seen memes of Boris Johnson talking about Vegemite, Tim Tams and Boomerangs, after the Prime Minister officially kick-started trade deals with Australia and the US.

Beyond these iconic products, the key negotiating objectives for the deals contain a non-regression clause on climate change. New Zealand, like the UK, has enshrined a 2050 net-zero target in law, with experts concluding that the nation is well-positioned to make this transition. Australia is currently mulling a 2050 net-zero target, recommended by major businesses, think-tanks and opposition ministers, but has not yet bolstered its climate targets.

The first round of negotiations will begin via video link on 29 June, meaning further details are likely to emerge in July. Initial reports suggest that any deal would contain specific measures pertaining to sustainable development and decarbonising agriculture.

Sarah George

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