Brexit and the Environment: Where the Gove-rnment stands

In today’s social and political climate, people often talk about how to be more environmentally friendly on an individual level. Whether it is walking or using your bike instead of public transport, cutting down on intake of animal products, or embracing the long lived phrase “reduce, reuse recycle”, small individual changes incorporated into everyday life should be encouraged. However, environmental sustainability policies (or lack thereof) of government bodies, and large scale corporations should not be ignored in discussion of this cause. For example, there has been discussion recently of how the UK withdrawal bill will negatively affect wildlife habitats by organisations such as Greener UK.

Earlier this year Trump proposed for the US to cut ties with the Paris Climate Change Agreement, which the UN Environmental programme has stated is not enough. There is talk from our current government of making trade deals with the USA. In this time of uncertainty, it seems difficult not to worry about how these decisions will affect wildlife protection, pollution, and climate change.

UK voters and environmental groups have expressed concern towards the environmental impacts of Brexit. The future of this seems to be solely dependent on creation of new laws in lieu of EU environmental laws, and potential impact of trade deals made post-Brexit. UK minister for the Environment, Michael Gove, recently gave a statement on having an environmental watchdog after Brexit. Although this may seem hopeful, no specifics were provided, and it seemed to rely upon buzz phrases, such as: “hold the powerful to account,”, “real bite,” and “speak its mind freely.” And though he pushes policies like banning bee-harming pesticides, Gove’s track record on environmental policy leaves a lot to be desired. For example, former energy secretary Ed Davey has argued that Gove tried to remove climate change from the geography curriculum. Statements backing Gove up are mainly from fellow conservative MPs, while statements from groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of The Earth seem sceptical. As for his air pollution policies, Greenpeace’s executive director stated that they have fallen short. Moreover, his view on fracking is not clearly defined.

Gove’s voting record on environmental issues also seems to be questionable. He generally voted against measures to prevent climate change, and voted in favour of selling state owned forests, badger culling, and lifting the fox hunting ban.  The latter two on the record are particularly worrying since wildlife protection is one environmental issue potentially affected by Brexit, and is given large amounts of coverage on outlets such as The Guardian and The BBC.  

Moving on from criticism of Gove, it’s important to look at what is outlined for environmental policy under the most recent Conservative manifesto. There is a focus on gas and nuclear energy, and an insistence on the benefits of fracking. Fracking uses vast amounts of water, and it also risks causing small tremors, and letting carcinogenic chemicals escape. The manifesto also mentions leaving the EU as a “clear path to taking control of environmental policies.”. In a party with a poor record on environmental policy, the rhetoric of “taking control” seems to be rendered meaningless. Under Theresa May, The Conservative Party chose to abolish the Department for Energy and Climate Change, which many MPs and scientific experts viewed as a worrying move. The removal of this department only happened one year ago. Former energy minister Andrea Leadsom proposed the question “Is Climate Change Real?” and was later appointed Secretary of State for the Environment. It must be conceded that Gove’s claim to have environmental policies based on science may seem like a slight glimmer of hope in the face of climate change denial by individuals such as Leadsom – and even more worryingly, Trump in the USA.  However, we are currently in stages of uncertainty and mistrust. There are no clear suggestions of what may be done when the UK takes control over environmental issues, no suggestion of moving towards renewable energy sources, and no mention of the impact of animal agriculture on climate change. The latter is unsurprising, as the impact of environmental agriculture on climate change is rarely mentioned by environmental NGOs, and is a controversial topic to approach.

Overall, we are in a huge time of uncertainty regarding environmental government policy in the face of Brexit. Wildlife protection in particular is under huge potential threat, as much of this was managed under EU law. It may also feel difficult to trust leaders who have supported badger culling, and lifting of the fox hunting ban. Making trade deals with the USA is also potentially worrying, due to Trump cutting ties with the Paris Climate Change Agreement. However, we cannot be certain of any of this, and will just have to wait and see.

[Amy Irvine]

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