Environmental groups have urged the prime minister to avoid watering down legislation on climate change and wildlife protection after Brexit. The letter, signed by WWF, Greenpeace and others, says action is needed to halt ongoing environmental decline. The UK government previously said it would leave the environment in a better state for future generations. But the letter expresses concern that Brexit could force ministers to backtrack on this promise. Newspaper reports based on leaked documents have suggested that trade and growth would be prioritised at the expense of efforts to tackle global warming and the illegal trade in wildlife. A government spokesperson said the UK's commitment to the environment was as strong as ever. It said the documents referenced in the media were old "unclassified notes" based on a conference from several months ago. The letter from campaigners says: "We are alarmed by recent media reports suggesting that the UK's commitments to tackling climate change and ending the illegal wildlife trade could be watered down to secure post-Brexit trade deals." It added: "To be a great, global trading nation, the UK must deliver on its promises for the environment and the climate and honour our international commitments. "In doing so we will help build a greener, better and more prosperous future for everyone, rather than driving an environmental race to the bottom."
Campaign groups that have signed the letter include WWF, the Born Free Foundation, Cafod, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Oxfam. A number of high-profile individuals are also signatories: they include Andy Murray, Anna Friel, Will Young, Lord Stuart Rose and environmentalist Sir Crispin Tickell. "A majority of environmental protections derive from the EU - we've probably got the world's leading environmental framework. So as the UK leaves the EU, the risk is that some of those protections don't get brought over into UK law," Trevor Hutchings, director of advocacy at WWF-UK, told BBC News. These protections include a package of legislation to ensure the EU meets climate and energy targets for 2020. He said the EU institutions also provided a strict system of accountability, so that fines could be invoked if member states did not deliver on their obligations to the environment. "We, on the one hand, welcome the government's commitment to nature and to bringing these laws over through the Great Repeal Bill... but in recent weeks a number of things have happened that question that commitment," Mr Hutchings explained. He said this included not only the leaked memo, but also the delayed release of the government's 25-year plan for nature in England and the Clean Growth Plan on reducing carbon emissions, which Mr Hutchings said was expected before March this year.
"Things like access to environmental information, the 'precautionary principle', the 'polluter pays' principle are all established in EU treaties. The sense is that those might not come across [into UK law]," he explained. A government spokesperson said: "The UK is a global leader in tackling the Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) and a key part of worldwide efforts on climate change, including implementing the commitments made under the Paris Agreement. Our commitment to both issues is as strong as ever. "The Government also has a clear ambition to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we found it while securing the best deal for the country as we leave the EU." Some observers within the environmental community have expressed concerns that green issues could become bargaining chips in the effort to secure trade deals. "Environmental regulations and standards do make up so-called non-tariff trade barriers - as some people might perceive them," said Mr Hutchings. "It probably doesn't come as a surprise that some of these non-tariff barriers could become a central negotiating point for trade deals with countries that have lower standards. That's the fear, though we don't have any clear evidence of that."