What will Brexit mean for the environment?

With an important vote in the House of Commons now postponed, the current version of the Draft Withdrawal Agreement (the Draft Agreement) governing the UK’s departure from the EU may yet undergo changes in the coming days and weeks, or even find itself in the shredder. But working on the assumption that the environmental provisions currently within it will survive in a similar format, there are a number of key points that emerge.

Environmental protection

Anyone looking for guarantees in the Draft Agreement that specific environmental standards or regulations will be maintained will not find them. Instead, the Political Declaration for the Future Relationship (the Declaration) between the UK and the EU which accompanies the Draft Agreement provides a high-level indication of what things might look like in future, and the Draft Withdrawal Agreement provides a commitment to non-regression, asserting that current EU environmental legal principles will continue to form part of UK legislation.

For those keen to flick through the Draft Agreement itself, the main environmental references can be found on the following pages:

  • Non-regression in the degree of environmental protection, including as regards waste and climate change, and a joint commitment to continue to respect the “precautionary principle” and the “polluter pays” principle (page 356).
  • Monitoring and enforcement of environmental protection, with a new UK watchdog body tasked and empowered to investigate and take action against the UK Government and emanations of the state (page 359).

The Declaration also indicates that:

  • The EU and the UK will each keep their autonomy in terms of the regulation of economic activity in line with the degree of environmental protection each of them considers appropriate.
  • The “level playing field” vaunted in the Draft Withdrawal Agreement in order to ensure open and fair competition will include provision for environmental standards.
  • While there may be direct cooperation between the UK authorities and the likes of the EU Chemicals Agency, this will not obviate the need for a REACH-type system (the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals) in the UK.


The deliberate vagueness of the Declaration and a number of other factors - including rumours of a split between Environment Secretary Michael Gove and the Treasury over the role of environmental regulation - have left some environmental commentators and stakeholders worried that the UK might use Brexit as an opportunity to pull back on current and future environmental standards. Others point to the following as evidence that the UK will continue to be a leader in environmental controls:

  • The government has been vocal and clear in its commitment to the introduction of a powerful, independent body which can hold the state to account in matters of the environment.
  • The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (the Act) requires the government to introduce legislation enshrining a suite of environmental principles, backed up by a detailed policy statement.
  • The government has been equally clear in its commitment to prioritise high environmental standards when it comes to agreeing future trade deals.

So, while there may be choppy waters ahead for the Draft Agreement, a series of very public commitments by the government, supplemented by the Act and high level promises in the Declaration, suggest at least in the medium term that a robust environmental protection agenda will continue to play a key part in the UK’s legislatory and enforcement framework, and that little difference may be seen in this area between current EU-inspired protocols and new UK-led arrangements.

Read other items in Health, Safety and Environment Brief - December 2018

Related items: