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Could Brexit make Britain a cleaner, greener nation?

12 September 2016 Author: James Harris


As Theresa May’s government starts to gather its thoughts on the departure of the UK from the EU, a new poll shows that both leave and remain voters want to see equal or greater levels of protection for wildlife and wild areas than are currently provided by EU law. A clear message for government, it seems, from camps which are often portrayed as worlds apart.

Britain’s environmental laws have for decades been directly shaped by a raft of European Directives and Regulations. These go far beyond wildlife protection to cover water, soil and noise pollution, agricultural subsidies and fishing quotas, environmental data sharing, waste management and chemical protection. They are also woven closely into planning. The Habitats and Birds Directives can trump the NPPF’s presumption in favour of sustainable development. Local Plan sustainability appraisals derive from the EU’s Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive and others. Planning applications are assessed against conditions which stem from the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive.

So could this all change post-Brexit? If Britain joins Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein in the European Economic Area (EEA), then some EU environmental law would still apply, including the EIA and SEA Directives. However we would no longer have to update our national legislation in line with EU Directives on bathing water quality or protected birds/habitats. The Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies would immediately cease to apply, along with EU Regulations on invasive species and chemicals (as Regulations apply directly to Member States, rather than being transposed into national legislation).

However early noises from the government now indicate their preference for a ‘unique’ agreement. This would see Britain negotiating a series of bilateral treaties with Europe, with various aspects of environmental law accepted or rejected in exchange for access to the Single Market.

A series of complex choices and negotiations lie ahead, but this is only part of the picture. No discussion on our environmental relationship with Europe would be complete without considering the future of climate action. Here it gets even murkier.

On the face of it, not much should change. Our 2050 emissions reduction target is driven by national rather than European legislation, in the form of the 2008 Climate Change Act, and the government passed legislation immediately after the referendum which keeps this on track. The Department of Energy and Climate Change has also been rolled into a new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS), a shift which worried some, but others saw as an opportunity for climate action to be mainstreamed.

Meanwhile our emissions reduction pledge at the COP 21 (the latest international climate change conference in Paris) was made as part of a wider European pledge, from which might now have to be unpicked. However this is more likely to delay our ratification of the Paris Agreement than call it into question. But the Paris Agreement was only a first step, with the collective global pledges insufficient to prevent dangerous levels of warming. Britain’s role in shaping future European climate policy could well be curtailed – and it’s not reassuring to note that some prominent leave campaigners are also sceptical about the human causes of climate change. Indeed the new Minister for Brexit, David Davis, has called for the UK Climate Change Act to be revoked or ‘drastically amended’, citing a lack of evidence for why it’s needed. 

There is also a risk that the uncertainty caused by Brexit, coupled with the loss of EU structural funding, could hamper investment in our low-carbon waste, transport and energy infrastructure (including new energy links with Europe). EU renewable energy targets – credited for driving down the price of clean energy - would also no longer apply.

And when it comes to our energy inefficient housing stock, the future is unclear. After the government scrapped its Zero Carbon Homes policy, many looked to the European Performance of Buildings Directive to drive up energy standards for new-build (it requires all homes to be ‘nearly zero-energy’ by 2020). Will the government continue to update our national Building Regulations to take this target into account, or will these also be dropped in the name of productivity?

It seems that Brexit – in any shape – could open the door to changes in our environmental and energy legislation. This could of course create opportunities for improvement – EU laws are not perfect. But Brexit does not change the fact that Britain continues to suffer from biodiversity loss, invasive species and habitat degradation, nor that the government lacks policies to meet the next round of emission reductions. This is not the time to start rolling back on existing standards, targets or protections.


Further reading: The Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) has published a detailed report on the potential implications of Brexit on environmental policy and regulation.

James Harris

James Harris

James Harris is the Policy and Networks Manager at the Royal Town Planning Institute, responsible for our policy work on regeneration, infrastructure and the environment. You can follow James on Twitter @urban_wonder