Expert View

We share one planet. Brexit won’t help us save it

by Susan Shaw | 21.12.2018

Susan Shaw is an international environmental lawyer and the manager and founder of Living Law, a public interest environmental law firm.

“The beauty of multilateralism is that it is the effort of everybody,” Teresa Ribera, Spain’s recently appointed Minister for Ecological Transition told COP24, the UN climate change conference which concluded last week.

Ribera’s statement underscores the inherent fallacy of Brexit in the environmental field. The rhetorical slogans of the 2016 referendum – “taking back sovereignty” and “taking back control” – will undoubtedly find their place in the history books as the most opportunistic, cynical Brexit myths of all.

Whether it’s the unsustainable use of plastics, or the continued burning of fossil fuels, the consequences of planetary-scale negligence are already in all our living rooms. They affect the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.

Brexit or no Brexit, pollution does not respect artificial political borders. Today, there are few far-flung, untouched corners of the globe. We are all neighbours, and when global neighbours fail to pull their weight or make ill-considered choices everyone else is affected. Such behaviour also makes others wonder why they should continue to follow the very rules intended to serve us all.

On our shared planet, it is precisely for this reason that upholding and advancing the (albeit currently imperfect) rules-based system of international law is essential. Safeguarding Europe’s geopolitical standing as a united voice of global influence, as well as a substantial trading bloc in that system, is critical. The reality is no country can tackle the challenges alone – and the clock is already ticking fast to avoid irreparable and irreversible damage to the “Earth-system”.

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Sovereignty does not operate in a vacuum. European and, more broadly, international law enables us to express and thereby safeguard our interests. European environmental law, for the most part, provides the “how” of complying with our broader international obligations.

For example, lessons learnt from the Chernobyl disaster mean we have the rights to engage in transboundary, multi-lateral regulatory processes which protect and uphold our entitlement to a safe and healthy environment.

The years of negotiations stretching ahead of us over Brexit will divert resources and attention from tackling the immense real-world environmental challenges humanity face. Moreover, the government’s deal will turn the UK from an influential rule-maker into a mere rule-taker. Its terms now only confirm our worst fears.

If this deal is passed, we face years and years of legal uncertainty as we try to piece the domestic statute book back together. We will be reinventing the wheel only to arrive back at the same or, more likely, less favourable regulatory positions. Meanwhile, we will be stuck in a stagnated agreement with our European partners.

We should be under no illusion: this legal uncertainty does not serve the interests of our planet or its people. It will not even serve the UK’s own interests. And it will certainly not deliver the promised slogans of change that were touted in the 2016 referendum. Transnational corporations and technological developments move swiftly across borders. Governments can barely keep up with them as it is. Rhetoric about being the “greenest government ever” will not be what stands up against polluters in our courts after March 29.  

We should re-double our collective efforts to address the root causes which led to the vote to leave the EU. These causes are not unique to the UK. And they will only be exacerbated if we don’t head off the interconnected environmental crises humanity faces on a planetary scale.

We should be building on, rather than dismantling existing international legal systems to address these new and emerging challenges. Doing so gives us our only chance of securing an ecologically just and viable future for all.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “We share one planet. Brexit won’t help us save it”

  • I have practised environmental law in the UK since the early 1980s, and fully endorse the thrust of what Susan Shaw says. The UK has to collaborate with global partners to ensure that the necessary action is taken to minimise and eventually stop future global warming, and that necessarily means agreeing to regulations that spread the burden of that action fairly across all participants.

    Nevertheless, in relation to Brexit, I can’t help being somewhat ambivalent. Those most determined on our leaving the EU seem to include a very high proportion of people who see all regulation as a choke on industry and therefore bad, and among them are an even higher proportion of the UK’s climate change deniers. If such people were to form a future UK government, I would be delighted if environmental regulation was fixed solely by the EU, and that we had no option but to comply with it.

    But of course I would far prefer that the UK became a global leader in showing the political courage to act decisively against global warming, and in developing the new technologies needed. We could indeed perform that role very well, but unless and until I can have confidence that we will do so, I would rather keep this environmental issue separate from fighting Brexit.

  • Neither EU environmental policies and laws, nor the UK’s implementation of them, are by any means perfect. But as an environmental consultant working at the intersection of environmental policy and industry, I agree with Susan Shaw that this cannot be separated from the brexit debate. Those who talk of a green brexit are not being realistic about the resources available to the UK, its room for manoeuvre in environmental regulation and its potential to influence the world of the 21st Century. We would not have BAT reference documents and REACH without pan-European institutions and pan-European regulatory systems. Collaboration among individual states each supporting its own individual regulations would not have the same impetus. And the scale of the EU as a market for incoming goods allows REACH to have become the leading global chemical regulatory system (despite being more stringent than most) in a way that a UK version could not, even if it were somehow “better”. Environmental protection will lose massively if the UK leaves the EU, in many ways.