‘Non-regression’ commitment removed
Under the terms of Theresa May's draft withdrawal agreement, the so-called Northern Ireland backstop included a legally-binding commitment to "non-regression" in the level of environmental protection, should the UK reach the end of the transition period with no new trade deal having been agreed. The UK “shall ensure that the level of environmental protection provided by law, regulations and practices is not reduced below the level provided by the common standards applicable within the Union and the United Kingdom at the end of the transition period” in a range of areas, including industrial emissions, nature and biodiversity conservation and waste management, it had stipulated.
However, the commitment to non-regression is absent from the new withdrawal agreement.
'Level playing field' references replaced
Annex 4 of the previous withdrawal agreement had contained references to EU laws and international conventions that would apply to the whole UK in what were called "level playing field" commitments. These included environmental protection.
However, these references have now been replaced by less specific and non-binding commitments in the political declaration to uphold such principles in any future trade agreement between the EU and the UK. Crucially, green groups say, the political declaration - unlike the withdrawal agreement - is not legally binding.
Responding to Green MP Caroline Lucas's assertion that the change would "take a wrecking ball to our environmental and social standards", the prime minister said that "it is stated plainly in the political declaration that we will maintain the highest possible standards". Johnson added: " I think it is the will of this House, and this Government, to have even higher standards... We are world leaders in environmental and animal welfare protection, and we will continue to be so outside the EU," he told MPs on Saturday.
Transition period remains, but is shorter
Like Theresa May's deal, the new draft agreement contains plans for a transition period, also described as the ‘implementation period’, intended to bridge the gap between the date of the UK's exit from the EU and the entry into force of a UK-EU trade deal.
During the transition period, the UK would continue to apply EU law - with a few exceptions - as if it were a member state. The transition period would run until the end of December 2020 - the same date as in the original withdrawal deal - meaning the transition period is now shorter, due to the extension of Article 50 until 31 October 2019. Any decision on extending the transition period must be taken by 31 July 2020.
Questions over government’s green assurances
In a series of commitments intended to persuade wavering MPs to back the deal, the government pointed to the "world leading" Environment Bill, which it said would introduce "legally binding targets, and the government will be held to these targets by a new, independent Office for Environmental Protection". "This is already superior to a non-regression commitment," it said.
The statement also offered assurances on trade. "As we raise our standards after we leave the EU, we will not open up our markets for goods that do not meet our high standards," it said. "We will not sign trade deals that export the environmental cost of our consumption to the rest of the world."
"As we leave the EU our standards will remain at least as high, and will not - cannot - be sacrificed in the pursuit of free trade agreements," environment minister Zac Goldsmith tweeted.
But some are sceptical about the government’s assurances. In particular, commentators have already raised a series of concerns about shortcomings in the Environment Bill - which has yet to reach second reading - including over the independence of the OEP, and the fact that the bill in its current form does not contain any provisions to hold government to legal commitments until the year 2037.