A draft motion in response to the triggering of article 50 has set out the EU’s potential stipulations for a future relationship with the UK. Image: Flickr/Glyn Lowe

The UK will have to adhere to the European Union’s environmental and climate change-related policy if it is to have any future agreement with the trading bloc, according to the first EU response to the triggering of article 50.

A letter from Prime Minister Theresa May was delivered to EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker earlier today, officially notifying him of the UK’s departure from the union and starting the two years negotiation period.

A leaked copy of a draft motion for a resolution from the European Parliament was quickly published by The Guardian, laying out its position on a number of issues ranging from the likelihood of free trade deals to transitional periods after Brexit.

Among them, in a section dedicated to the ‘future EU-United Kingdom relationship’, the document stresses that “any future agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom is conditional on the United Kingdom’s continued adherence to the standards provided by the Union’s legislation and policies, in among others the fields of environment, climate change…”

This statement will serve to provide some assurances to environmentalists who fear the UK government could roll back on the green ambition set by the EU when laws and regulations are returned to Westminster and the devolved administrations.

May will seek to calm fears later this week with the publication of a white paper setting out how the Great Repeal Bill – the mechanism for transferring all current EU regulations in UK law – will be enacted. However, recent policy changes around energy efficiency and clean energy policy in particular have left many concerned over future progress.

Martin Baxter, chief policy advisor at IEMA, said: “The UK’s decision to trigger Article 50 notification to leave the European Union is monumental, a defining moment of our time.  

“We must ensure that high environmental and sustainability standards underpin the UK’s future outside the EU – they are core to our long-term prosperity. There can be no diminution of our ambition to transition to a sustainable future.  

“European Union treaties, regulations, directives, decisions and communications have played a significant role in setting the legal framework for UK environmental protection. Transposing this body of law through the Great Repeal Bill into the UK’s domestic legal framework will be a significant challenge. 

“We have significant concerns in a number of areas including air quality, renewable energy and chemicals regulation. Brexit must not be used to downgrade laws that are vital to protecting human health. 

Baxter also pointed out that many of the EU’s environmental principles are deeply ingrained in the processes of the single market, which could suggest the UK may have to follow similar principles despite May’s clear goal of divesting the UK from this.

Greenpeace UK's chief scientist Dr Doug Parr added: “The triggering of article 50 will start a process that could change the face of Britain for generations to come. This change won't be for the better if we lose the world-class environmental safeguards that four decades of EU membership have given us.

“Many of the environmental protections we all take for granted are rooted in EU law. Ministers must ensure that the process of transferring these rules over into UK law doesn't weaken them.”

Parr continued and said the Great Repeal Act must not be used to give ministers power to change environmental legislation at will and that cooperation with the EU must continue as issues like air pollution and climate change “don't form an orderly queue at national borders”.

Concerns have already been raised that the uncertainty over the last nine months since the referendum has caused considerable damage to investment in the low carbon economy.

“Brexit, and the resulting lack of announcements about future subsidies which have to date supported much of the sector, is causing a period of inertia and stalling many new projects. It is creating a very challenging and uncertain time for renewable and sustainable energy businesses,” said Rachel Nutt, tax partner and head of renewable and sustainable energy at business advisors’ MHA MacIntyre Hudson.

She added that new subsidy announcements would be needed in the areas of onshore wind and solar in particular to help the sector gain new momentum.