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Brexit and the Environment: Has the government broken international law?

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By Lucy Beach, BA History

The UN affiliated Aarhus Convention Compliance Committee is currently considering a complaint from the environmental group, Friends of the Earth, who have accused the UK government of breaching international environmental law in the EU withdrawal bill. The complaint is in regards to the Aarhus Convention, a rights-based treaty that ensures public consultation on matters of environmental law. The Aarhus Convention, signed in 1998 in the city of Aarhus in Denmark, came into force in 2001. The UK has been party to it since 2001 and will continue to be so after Brexit unless otherwise declared. The Convention consists of three central “pillars” concerning public involvement in matters of the environment and government, these being access to information, public participation, and access to justice.

It is with regard to the first and second “pillars” that Theresa May’s Conservative government has come under criticism. The Convention states “each party shall provide for early public participation, when all options are open and effective public participation can take place… having provided the necessary information to the public.” In its withdrawal from the EU, the government will be giving wide-ranging powers to the Minister of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). The Minister will have the power to make sweeping changes to UK environmental policy as it is separated from central EU legislation. The precise nature of these changes is as yet unknown – and as such the UK government has come under criticism for a lack of transparency whilst the time remaining for effective public participation is rapidly ticking away.

It is highly unlikely that this breach of environmental policy will stop Brexit. Critics state that this highlights the lack of care for the environment by the current government. Whilst global warming continues to threaten the natural world, the Conservative Party manifesto makes no mention of the environment in what they state are the “five giant challenges” of our times. It seems that in the difficulties surrounding the Brexit process, the government is of the opinion that the environment is something that can be side. However, the environment is of vital importance to the future of our world and cannot be cast aside so lightly. It remains to be seen how the government’s complacency in this area will stand up to international scrutiny.

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