Brexit, Trade and Sustainability -Two years on

Grantham Scholar Eunice P Oppon believes we should not decouple the environment from the economy

The word ‘Brexit’ brings out a lot of emotions. The uncertainty surrounding Brexit lingers on even though it has been two years now since the UK voted to leave the EU. One huge area of uncertainty regarding Brexit is trade, and as we have seen in recent weeks, when nations start redrawing trade agreements things can get nasty. Ongoing debate and discussion has focused largely on the impact of Brexit on the UK trade economy – but there are two sides to this issue o depending on which side of the debate you are on. For anti-Brexit campaigners it may seem to be all gloom, while pro-Brexit campaigners believe the UK leaving the EU presents better trade opportunities and a boost to the economy. However, I believe whichever side one is on, an important point often neglected is the environmental sustainability of trade. What impacts will post-Brexit trade have on the environment, both local and global? What does Brexit mean for environmental policies on climate change such as the Paris agreement?

Unfortunately, much of Brexit trade talk negotiations and debates have centred on the economic pillar of sustainability to the neglect of the environmental. Economic sustainability has been at the forefront of post-Brexit trade talks, such as the UK leaving the European single market. There have been concerns raised about the UK being vulnerable to trade wars as a result of Brexit. People are worried about jobs cuts in industries that rely heavily on exports to the EU market. As much as these issues are important to UK trade economy, the continuous focus on it presents a narrow sustainability assessment of Brexit impact on the country’s trade sector. I believe it is equally important to widen the discussions to include environmental impacts associated with post-Brexit trade.

In the pre-Brexit era, the UK was under EU environmental and trade laws which meant, for instance, that some businesses and industries in the UK had to abide by certain environmental regulations which may have had negative knock-on effects on economic profits in these sectors. Now what will happen when the UK is no longer bound by such environmental laws? For pro-Brexit campaigners, the freedom from EU environmental laws that hurt the economy might seem laudable but what will this mean for the protection of the environment?

We cannot talk about UK trade economy and ignore environmental issues as the two are interconnected, environmental impacts may have spillover effects to UK trade partners. For instance, in recent research I conducted, I found that through its trade imports, the UK is able to avoid carbon emissions and preserve some of its natural resources such as land and water by consuming goods produced in some African countries. So basically businesses in the UK are able to engage in ‘pollution offshoring’ by importing intermediate goods or moving production requiring natural resources to developing countries that have  relaxed environmental regulations. Although this phenomenon has been ongoing long before Brexit, it is likely that such cross border environmental pollutions will increase Post-Brexit if the UK is no longer bound by stringent EU environmental laws and increases trade volumes with her other non-EU trade partners, such as Asia and Africa.

Decoupling the environment from economy gives a false picture of the true impacts of Brexit on trade. Environmental protection must not be side-lined in post-Brexit trade talks. Although the UK government announced plans to set up an environmental watchdog committee post-Brexit, they have been criticised by Sadiq Khan, mayor of London, for dragging their feet in honouring this commitment. Going forward the UK must demonstrate that it will be committed to environmental protection laws both local and international post-Brexit, especially since it will no longer be under stringent EU environmental laws. In the end, whether Brexit or ‘Bremain’, the environmental sustainability of likely impacts on trade is very important.