The UK has a reputation for blocking or watering down many EU environmental regulations but after Brexit will future EU environmental laws become greener? David Polya outlines some of the possible consequences for environmental policy in the UK following the leave vote.
EU membership – the pros
There’s no doubt that full membership of the EU has had profound largely positive impacts on both environmental law and the environment in the UK over the last 40 years – notably in improvements in waste recycling (e.g. Circular Economy Package – for a more sustainable use of materials and products), cleaner beaches, cleaner air, less polluted inland water courses (improving UK’s ‘Dirty Man of Europe’ image), control of chemicals (e.g. REACH – regulations relating to the production and use of chemicals) and in the protection of biodiversity.
But we shouldn’t overlook that UK environmental professionals have also made substantial contributions to the development of EU environmental policy. In fact we have been leading champions, for example, in highlighting and recommending strategies to combat climate change and protecting biodiversity, as well as providing much of the academic input underpinning recent changes in European directives protecting our health from arsenic in rice sold in our supermarkets.
Another of the benefits of being part of Europe is that EU environmental legislation has acted as a major driver for investment and technological development by creative and innovative companies in both the UK and the rest of Europe. In a recent Friends of the Earth paper it states the CBI’s figure that “green business accounted for 8% of GDP, a third of UK growth in 2011-2012 and could add a further £20 billion to the UK economy”. Only time will tell when or if Brexit is enacted whether this figure will shrink or continue in its upward trajectory.
Crystal ball predictions?
It is impossible to accurately predict what the specific consequences of Brexit for the UK environment will be. This is because it may depend critically upon future government negotiations around access to the single market. Earlier this year the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) wrote a report on the potential policy and environmental consequences for the UK following a departure from the EU. Within the report it stated that membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) would likely require the UK to still conform to many – but not all – EU environmental legislative requirements, whilst if EEA membership was not attained, then there would be considerably more freedom for the UK to amend and develop separate environmental legislation from the EU.
Whatever path is ultimately taken, it seems not unreasonable to speculate that the UK’s involvement in drafting and guiding EU environmental law and policy will be substantially diminished in many if not most areas – having said that, UK environmental science has – irrespective of involvement with the EU – been a major influence on international environmental policy, particularly in areas where local actions contribute to global environmental impacts.
Between the devil and the deep blue sea
The impact of diverging UK and EU environmental laws and policy may have both negative and positive impacts. Many speculate that much UK environmental legislation is likely to be weakened becoming less protective of the environment whilst arguably at the same time providing a simpler and cheaper commercial environment for business development to take place. The Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) warns of “substantial risks to future UK environmental ambition and outcomes” in the event of departure from the EEA and still “significant concerns”, even if the UK retained membership of the EEA. In some specific areas, however, for example conservation of fish, it has been argued that such divergence from, say, the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) gives rise to the potential for a more positive influence on the environment.
In a recent New Scientist article Michael Le Page points out that the “UK has blocked or watered down many EU environmental regulations” so “future environmental laws may be stronger if the UK has no say”. Similarly, there may be – although this is arguably contentious – opportunities arising in the application of gene-editing techniques to agriculture and in more environmentally friendly farming/set-aside practices unfettered by the requirements of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Some argue that “a lack of (energy) renewables investment is a Europe-wide failure” that might or might not be remedied in the UK specifically.
Irrespective of prospective changes to environmental legislation, an environmental briefing by the law firm Eversheds points out that there may be a regulatory gap following Brexit and that many individual businesses wishing to access EU markets may voluntarily choose to comply with EU environmental regulatory requirements to maintain market access and to minimise potential reputational damage. The firm also points out that “fully appraising and responding appropriately to the situation will incur considerable time and money, with a long period of uncertainty”.
Environmental researchers from The University of Manchester are working on more in-depth analysis to better understand and inform us on the more detailed consequences for environment and policy in the UK following Brexit but perhaps some of the biggest uncertainties in this analysis are the impact that Brexit may have on levels of research funding, on productive cross-country research collaborations and on pathways to impact.
The continued and improved protection of our environment and of public health from environmental physical, biological and chemical hazards may depend critically on the practical recognition by governments of the enormous value added provided by UK and more broadly other EU and international environmental scientists, engineers and social scientists over the last 40 years.