Will our protections for threatened species fall off a cliff edge come Brexit?

Christopher McAteer, Nature Matters NI

The potential effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland are so overwhelmingly varied – and often alarming – that it may seem a touch masochistic to consider yet more concerns. But if worries over tariffs, the fledgling economy, and a hard border aren’t enough for you, then the cliff edge facing our environment might be just up your street.

A whopping 80% of the UK’s environmental laws originate from the EU, which will now have to be transferred into UK legislation. But precisely which pieces of legislation and how they will be transferred, we don’t yet know. This is what much of the current wrangling over the EU Withdrawal Bill is concerned with.

What we would like to see is the Westminster Government banking all of the environmental legislation from the EU and then building upon it, creating even stronger protections for nature. This could see us paying farm subsidies in a way that rewards and incentivises nature–friendly farming. It could also see a clean air strategy that addresses the 500 deaths we have each year in Northern Ireland due to air pollution.

Given the context of environmental protection in Northern Ireland – no independent oversight; only UK region without an environmental protection agency; the highest rate of biodiversity loss in the UK – we need to seriously consider how we redesign our legislation post-Brexit.

The Westminster Government has promised to transfer all relevant EU laws, but it hasn’t yet committed in legislation to retaining all of the principles and protections that ensure these laws are actually upheld. And with such a vast number of environmental laws set to be transferred across, this is particularly concerning for those of us who care about the environment.

While it hasn’t always been perfectly implemented, EU legislation has offered an important route to environmental protection for Northern Ireland. To take an example, the Birds Directive was created by the EU to protect hundreds of wild bird species and their habitats across the EU. As a result it has helped protect species that were previously endangered and slowed down biodiversity loss. It is used to protect some of our most iconic species including the corncrake, the curlew and the puffin.

Even with these protections in place we still find ourselves in a situation where our beloved Atlantic puffin is on the Red list of Threatened Species and at risk of extinction.

The Government’s original draft of the Withdrawal Bill left out some of the key principles underpinning environmental protection, leaving the environment vulnerable to future threats. These include the principles that polluters should pay for the damage they cause and that the risks of serious environmental damage should be taken into account and acted on by decision-makers even in the absence of full scientific certainty.

The bill is currently being considered by the House of Lords, with a series of amendments being put forward by members unconvinced by the ambition of the Government’s bill.

A cross-party group of Peers this week raised concern over the bill’s deficiencies in environmental governance, to which Michael Gove has made only vague promises to address.

Even if the Government transfers all of the EU environmental legislation across to the UK statute books, the Peers argue, none of it will be worth the paper it’s written on without strong, independent bodies to hold the Government and devolved legislatures to account.

Currently, several EU institutions, including the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, largely fulfil that role. Outside the EU, we will need our own oversight bodies to ensure that our environmental laws are implemented in full.

An amendment was tabled in the Lords last Monday night, but with the Government keen to avoid yet another defeat in the Upper House, they announced that consultations on the key issues of environmental principles and an environmental watchdog will be unveiled before the 3rd Stage of the bill in the Lords, resulting in the amendment being put on the back shelf.

Ultimately it will all come down to how these consultations are framed, and with the environment being a largely devolved issue it is unclear how much impact this will have in Northern Ireland. Without a functioning Assembly, a Westminster intervention could be the last hope for our environment, which is already less well protected than any other region in the UK.

Of course, with the right political will a corner can indeed be turned. If EU legislation is banked and built upon a ‘Green Brexit’ will be possible, but first we need to see an environmental watchdog with some real teeth. We could also do with some more forward planning in the form of a 25 year plan for the environment [Link: https://www.nienvironmentlink.org/news/25-Year-Plan-for-NI-environment].

It will be interesting to see how much impact the Lords will have on the EU Withdrawal Bill and what exactly MPs will be voting on when it passes back to the Commons in the months ahead. Michael Gove’s ‘Green Brexit’ has raised the hopes of many who are concerned about the loss of protection for some of Northern Ireland’s most cherished species. Whether or not this bears any fruit remains to be seen.

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