• Is a Green Brexit Likely to Happen?

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Is a Green Brexit Likely to Happen?

Aug 30 2017

Speaking at the WWF’s Living Planet Centre on July 21st, Michael Gove delivered his first keynote speech as Environment Secretary and signalled his ambition to achieve a “green Brexit”.

This involves ensuring that standards are not relaxed as the UK transitions to life outside of the EU, and instead taking this “historic opportunity to review our policies on agriculture, on land use, on biodiversity, on woodlands, marine conservation, fisheries, pesticide licensing, chemical regulation, animal welfare, habitat management, waste, water purity, air quality and so much more.”

But while Gove’s sound bites might hit all the right notes, is his vision of a green Brexit feasible? Can he be trusted? And even if he can, is it even possible to engineer such a scenario?

U-turn from Gove

Less than six months ago, Gove enthused about the potential for scrapping restrictive EU legislation  in the wake of Brexit. Among other examples, he highlighted the Habitats Directive, which requires construction companies to offset the environmental impact of building too close to green spaces by creating new ones to replace them.

This, he said, “massively increases the cost and the regulatory burden for housing development,” recommending that we use Brexit as an opportunity to sidestep such legislation. At the time, Gove did not hold a position in the cabinet; he’d not long been ousted after David Cameron stepped down as Prime Minister.

Now installed as Environment Secretary, Gove has performed a spectacular U-turn on the topic. He asserted that in the wake of Brexit, the UK should seek to establish itself as “home of the highest environmental standards”, touching on subjects as varied as bee conservation and vehicle emissions reductions to agricultural protection and fishery practices.

With the environment a crucial area of political debate and public opinion strongly in support of conservation – as demonstrated by the impressive growth at this year's Air Quality & Emissions Event – it could be that Gove is simply changing tack to appease the masses and try to win back the popular vote… but even if he’s genuine in his ambition, achieving a green Brexit could be altogether harder than it seems.

Actions speak louder than words

While Gove was delivering his vision for a brighter tomorrow, his own government appeared to be undermining those very words. In the very same week, the Tories were up in court for introducing changes to legal costing surrounding environmental court cases, presumably in a bid to deter environmental law groups (such as ClientEarth) from suing them repeatedly.

Meanwhile, he spoke at length about addressing emissions from diesel vehicles, but doing so will involve standing up to the financial might of the automotive industry, which has proved to be a feat that the Conservatives have not been prepared to brave as yet.

Elsewhere, agriculture is surely set to face a massive decrease in the current £3 million it receives in subsidies from the EU, making it next to impossible to maintain high environmental standards in the industry. At the same time, Gove has conceded that any amendments to fishery legislation will necessarily allow other countries to enter our waters, which takes control of plastic pollution out of our hands entirely.

Clearly, Gove is making all the right noises about the potential that separation from the EU entails. However, achieving such a lofty vision will be far harder than he makes it sound, and rather than reinventing a greener Britain through Brexit, we might well need to introduce new laws simply to limit its environmental impact. Genuine or not, it’s going to be a rocky road ahead for the Environment Secretary and for the UK.    

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