Are fears that Brexit will have a negative impact on the environment justified?
In 2019 Britain faces an important change concerning not only their politics and economy, but also their environment. On June 23, 2016 UK citizens voted to leave the European Union by 51.9%. But why does this change also concern the environment? “The EU’s record on environmental issues is arguably one of its greatest achievements” (Johnston 2016). As soon as the UK is leaving the European Union they will no longer have the European environmental protection laws and policy which means they are forced to form their own which can cause lots of changes. Many people fear that this will be a negative consequence of the Brexit. Are those fears that Brexit will have a negative impact on the environment justified? This is the question this essay is mainly concerned with. In a fast-growing society like ours which is endangered by climate change and other environmental issues it is important to take care of the essential factors that make living like this possible, like the environment. Every country is in need to amend laws and a strict environmental policy which enables us to live on in our environment for as many more years as possible and to ensure other generations a future. The environmental policy of the European Union is strict but it shows that those countries are the top environmental friendly countries. Now that the United Kingdom is planning on leaving the European Union, it is questionable whether their new environmental policy will be able to stand up to European standards.
First, it is important to take a look at the environmental situation before Brexit. All members of the EU are following EU guidelines and EU environmental protection laws. “The EU has some of the world’s highest environmental standards” (Topics of the European Union 2017). Their environmental policy is concerned with economy, nature and the quality of life and health of EU citizens. Part of their policy is to “share resources like water, air, natural habitats “, and to protect rare and vulnerable species and their habitats (Topics of the European Union 2017). Also, the guarantee safe drinking and bathing water, improve our air quality and aim to reduce or eliminate the effects of harmful chemicals (Topics of the European Union 2017). Of course, the EU also plays a big factor in the global environmental situation such as keeping the oceans and air clean and managing the level of climate change. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that all countries being members of the EU are up to the same standards. Even before their decision to leave the EU, the United Kingdom has not been as protective about their environment as for example Germany. A table from 2015 shows that Germany for example is on place 6 of the most environmental protective countries of the world whereas the UK is only place 12 (Papp 2015). Still, all members of the EU have to live up to the EU environmental laws and deal with the challenges this proposes to each country’s individual environmental policy. This will change as soon as Britain is leaving the European Union.
For now, it is important to pass a new Environmental Protection Act (ClientEarth 2017) because the UK no longer has the European Union’s Policy as soon as they leave the EU. They will be forced to amend and pass new environmental laws which won’t be an easy task to do. “The international, political and financial pressures the government will face during and after the Brexit negotiations, pose a huge threat to UK environmental protections” (ClientEarth 2017). The problem is that all European legislation has to be changed into UK legislation by the next year, which will mean a lot of changes. The EU has one of the most comprehensive environmental protection law 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 will leave impact on this policy sector” (Burns et al. 2016: 3). It will surely take time for the UK environmental policy to become as strong as EU environmental policy. Many critics of the Brexit like environmental lawyer James Thornton even propose that “Brexit is the most dangerous political threat to the environment” (ClientEarth April 2016). Being a member of the European Union has improved Britain’s environmental decisions but when they are on their own again this might pose a threat to nature (ClientEarth April 2016). EU’s environmental standards are very high which has a positive effect on every member’s environment. “The EU forces the UK and other EU countries to raise themselves to a higher standard of protection than they would necessarily choose on their own” (ClientEarth February 2016), but that can be seen as a good thing as the environmental protection policy of the European Union has some of the world’s highest standards and is one of the most successful (Topics of the European Union 2017). Without their membership, the UK might not be able to build up such a strong environmental protection. Another problem is that “the prospects for habitats, birds and water quality will be dependent upon the preferences of the government of the day and the impact of lobbying” (Burns et al. 2016: 7). Being a member of the EU this is not possible because they have to follow the guidelines given and can’t just change their environmental laws on preferences.
On the other side, what happens to the environment also depends on how much the UK and the European Union really depart. There is more than one possible scenario because Brexit doesn’t necessarily mean that the United Kingdom and the EU can’t work together anymore. If for example the UK would become a member of the European Economic Area, their international environmental policy and energy and climate policy would hardly change (Burns et al. 2016: 6). But if they negotiate free trade deals the UK would be free to reform their environmental policy although “many of the environmental rules adopted to facilitate the operation of the Single Market (such as product standards) will have to stay in place if the UK wants to trade with the EU” (Burns et al. 2016: 8). They would still have to follow certain criteria but would be free concerning the policy and laws. Despite the success of the EU’s environmental protection there are also people who argue that the EU’s environmental standards are too though to keep up with and that it might be positive for the UK to part from that. Also, Britain’s parliament would be able to make their own environmental laws which could be more specific to the country’s needs (Johnston 2016). George Eustice, a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and pro-Brexit furthermore argues that the government would be able to spend more money on the environment as they would have more control over what to spend the money on (Johnston 2016).
Whether the fears of Brexit critics are justified or leaving the EU can have a positive outcome for UK’s environment is not that easy to answer. On the one hand leaving the EU might give Britain the chance to focus more on the country’s individual needs concerning the environment. The European Union certainly had a positive effect on the UK’s environmental protection policy but that doesn’t mean that every aspect of that policy was helpful for the UK specifically. But some of the Brexit critics surely are right as well. Leaving the European Union will certainly bring some change to the UK environmental policy as they don’t have to follow EU law anymore but can make up their own laws to protect their environment. This will definitely be a difficult task and I can understand the fear many people have. The environment is under constant threat and has to be protected by a reasonable and qualified environmental policy. The EU has definitely had a positive effect on Britain’s environment and it is questionable whether the UK will be able to live up to EU standards on its own. But I don’t think that it is impossible, it might just take a few years to adjust to new laws. Still, the fears that the new adjustment will have negative consequences for the UK environment at first, are justified. It is important to engage with the issue and think of possible solutions as early as possible.