What might Brexit mean for the environment?

Posted in: Comment, New Publications

In a new study, Charlotte Burns, Andrew Jordan and Viviane Gravey, explore what Brexit might come to mean for UK environmental policies and governance processes by comparing two scenarios: a ‘soft’ and a ‘hard’ Brexit.

A ‘soft’ Brexit would see the UK remain as close as possible to the EU, establishing a new relationship akin to Norway’s current relationship, whilst a ‘hard’ Brexit would see the UK trade with the EU under World Trade Organisation rules.  The authors say that the two scenarios generate radically different impacts on policies, systems of governance and levels of environmental quality in the UK – key issues that should inform forthcoming negotiations to effect Brexit.

This is the authors' Introduction:

On 23rd June 2016 the UK held a referendum to decide its future relationship with the European Union. The electorate was asked if it wanted to remain or leave the EU and voted by a margin of 4% in favour of leaving (52% Leave vs 48% Remain).  The implications for the UK’s environmental policy sector are potentially very far-reaching. The EU is well-known for its economic activities – its Single Market, customs union and currency. Yet its environmental policies, which have quietly accumulated since the early 1970s, address every aspect of environmental protection from air and water pollution, through to land-use planning and climate change. Together, they constitute one of the most comprehensive bodies of environmental protection law in existence anywhere in the world today. Yet the environment was barely mentioned in the referendum campaign and there is still very limited understanding of how the vote to leave will impact on this policy sector.  This report updates a detailed review of the academic evidence on how EU membership has influenced UK policies, systems of decision making and environmental quality that was produced to inform the debates leading up to the referendum (Burns et al. 2016). Our earlier work explored the possible effects of a vote either to remain or leave the EU, but now the result is clear, the demand for impartial, expert analysis of its environmental repercussions is even more important.  Will environmental standards rise or fall? Who will make significant decisions outside the EU? And what are the environmental effects likely to be? This report cuts through the technical complexity and the uncertainty associated with the UK’s withdrawal from the EU by addressing these and other salient questions. It does so by transparently exploring the risks and opportunities that arise in two main scenarios:

  • The UK becomes a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) (the ‘Soft Brexit’ option)
  • The UK negotiates free trade deals with the EU and other trading partners (the ‘Hard Brexit’ option)

There are infinitely more scenarios that could be considered, but these two capture the most critical choices, risks and opportunities. We hope that by presenting the evidence in this way, this report will give voters a much fuller insight into what will be at stake once the UK government formally initiates its withdrawal from the EU.

As the authors note, each option means different future policy choices for environmental policy which will impact on UK law and policy, on governance and, eventually, on levels of environmental quality that are currently enjoyed by UK citizens.  That is undoubtedly the case.

I was surprised, however, about how little attention was paid to the CAP, and surely the following conclusion is open to question:

"It seems likely from an environmental perspective that the farming lobby will oppose most greening measures and will seek to roll back policies on habitat and bird protection, and on nitrates, which are seen as expensive."

The cynic in me says that this is entirely dependent on the amount of non-farming payments that are on offer to farmers, especially NFU members.  The more hopeful me says that there is more to this than cynicism and that at least some farmer and wildlife organisations will welcome the chance to work together to a common end.

We shall see; but what an opportunity.

Posted in: Comment, New Publications


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