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​‘Leaving the #environment in a better state’- or just a state?: the impact of #Brexit by Anneliese Dodds MEP

​‘Leaving the #environment in a better state’- or just a state?: the impact of #Brexit by Anneliese Dodds MEP

We here at CrowdLeaf.org.uk are humbled to be sharing another guest piece, this time from a European level decision maker. As a South East MEP she offers an insider’s perspective on both the problems and solutions for the Environment. All views are that of Anneliese Dodds not CrowdLeaf as an entity.
It is no secret that the vast majority of environmentalists supported remaining in the European Union. Nonetheless, those of us who accept the result of the referendum have to somehow ensure that the UK Government now delivers on the aspirations of those who voted to Leave, without completely ignoring the concerns of those who wanted to stay. 

Last week we finally got an indication of the Government’s negotiating priorities, and it is fair to say that environmental issues received relatively little consideration, with only one paragraph out of 77 pages being devoted to them aside from brief passing references. This differs from the Welsh government’s explicit call for both working and environmental standards from the EU to be retained as part of any post-Brexit settlement.

Instead, the UK Government stated that while it would ‘use the Great Repeal Bill to bring the current framework of environmental regulation into UK and devolved law’, this would be followed by the development over time of a ‘comprehensive approach to improving our environment in a way that is fit for our specific needs’- suggesting an (albeit gradual) shift away from current EU standards. 

In this article I will try and sketch out some of the directions that this new approach could take, in the fields of water and air quality, waste management, climate change, green growth and protection of biodiversity.

Although the UK has arguably led the way in some areas of environmental policy, this is certainly not the case when it comes to water and air quality. Indeed, even when covered by EU legislation the UK government has been taken to task by the European Court of Justice for failing to meet standards in both areas. For example, Britain has, last month, been sent a final warning to comply with EU air pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide or it will face a case at the European Court of Justice.  £100m to rectify problems with waste water management in Hampshire was provided by the European Investment Bank to Southern Water, and it is unclear whether the UK will be able to remain a member of the Bank in the future and whether this low-interest source of finance will therefore be available.  

In addition, the existence of EU law has been an important tool to affect the behaviour of the private sector. Hence, the need to meet EU objectives on water quality enabled Ofwat to pressure water companies to invest in projects like the London super sewer. It may prove more difficult to exercise this kind of pressure in the future. When it comes to air quality, while there are UN rules on emissions, specific and enforceable national emissions ceilings (which, incidentally, the UK government recently lobbied to water down), determined at EU level, will no longer apply to us. 

It is therefore difficult to identify areas where Brexit could enable a scaling-up of action to improve environmental quality. The fact that the UK would no longer be expected to follow the Polluter Pays principle could mean that polluters could, in theory, once more be compensated for measures they introduce to reduce pollution (just as farmers once were for producing nitrates), but such measures may not be politically or pragmatically feasible, nor desirable. 

On waste management, the picture is a complex one. Clearly EU landfill rules facilitated measures to promote recycling which would otherwise have been unlikely in the face of sometimes vociferous initial opposition. On the other hand, many rules concerning the recycling of specific products may still have to be complied with by British manufacturers if they wish to still access EU markets (whether or not we are in the single market), such as those contained within the revised Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, and also pertaining to vehicles and their emissions, and to chemicals. 

The UK government states in the White Paper its commitment to continue to exercise a leading role in combating climate change, but it is difficult to see how this will be achieved in current circumstances. Generally the UK has, over time, pushed a stricter approach to reducing carbon emissions in the EU than many countries would otherwise have supported, not least the Visegrad countries. As a result, the removal of the UK from the EU may reduce the determination of the largest trading bloc in the world to push measures against climate change- needed now more than ever given the hostile approach of the new US administration. At the same time, the UK’s unwillingness to countenance EU measures promoting specific national targets (such as on the percentage of energy produced by renewable sources) may unblock action in this area. Conversely, the removal of the EU’s second biggest contributor may negatively impact on the funding gap in energy infrastructure, leading to more polluting energy production being retained across the EU than would otherwise have been the case. Other issues are currently open for debate, such as whether or not the UK will continue to participate in the Emissions Trading Scheme. 

The impact on biodiversity can be split into that on land-based and marine wildlife and fauna, and related to the likely new British approaches to farming and fishing, respectively. 

It is clear that there are a range of international (as opposed to European) conventions to protect wildlife, from the CITES Convention to the Bern Convention and beyond, in addition to UK national measures such as the system of SSSIs and ASSIs. These would provide some continuing degree of protection to British wildlife. However, the EU Birds and Habitats Directives are stronger in many regards. First, they provide stricter protections for Natura 2000 sites against development than do nationally-designated areas; and second, they also facilitate LIFE funding for conservation measures. Again, the EU’s regulations on Wildlife Trade and Invasive Alien Species offer stronger protections than the CITES convention. 

Some have suggested, conversely, that the removal of the UK from the CAP regime will promote greater greening of agriculture. Hence, the Government’s White Paper suggests that the removal of CAP from the UK affords an opportunity for ‘new better and more efficient’ farming policies for a ‘cleaner, healthier environment’. It is, however, rather unclear why this should be the case, when (for example) pigs and poultry in the UK receive the least CAP funding and yet are highly intensive. 

The environmental aspects of the CAP have been legitimately criticised from a variety of angles. Nonetheless, as the dust settles, it is unclear whether the funding available through CAP for practices ‘beneficial to climate and the environment’ – which amounts to almost a third of direct payments to farmers- will come from after 2020.

Both the Scottish and Welsh governments look likely to campaign for significant subsidies to be retained by farmers, especially those farming marginal land, who are the most dependent on subsidy; yet this approach may not persist in England. This could have a variety of environmental impacts. If the removal of subsidy leads to marginal and smaller farms becoming unviable, this will clearly lead to the creation of some larger farms, which has been linked to a reduction in biodiversity and increased specialisation, as well as a reduction in the labour force necessary to engage in labour-intensive conservation measures. Subsidy removal could also lead to the abandonment of land and reduction in livestock numbers. This could in theory lead to some rewilding and reduction in methane emissions. Equally, it could lead to the development of relatively undiverse scrubland and not result in any emissions reductions if British consumers simply import meat from other countries. 

When it comes to the marine environment, the UK has led the way in developing Marine Conservation Zones. Although hailed as a significant step forward, in practice they are weaker in protecting against development than the Natura 2000 system. Again, international conventions do apply, with the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic (OSPAR) viewed as having been significant, especially when compared to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. In addition, the UK Government states in its White Paper that its new approach to fisheries will ‘want to…deliver a cleaner, healthier and more productive marine environment’, which is encouraging. These may however be over-ambitious aims if the political pressure to allow a more permissive approach in the short term following Brexit overcomes the need to preserve fish stocks over the long term. The fact that research has shown that the UK already has a relatively high average tonnage above scientific advice is therefore rather worrying.

To conclude, environmental issues received a relatively low profile in the referendum debate, despite the efforts of politicians, NGOs and individuals from across the political spectrum, from the Greener UK coalition to Stanley Johnson to Mary Creagh MP. Now that the Brexit negotiations have begun, they are continuing to receive little apparent attention from government, with important issues like environmental quality and waste management not even being mentioned in the government’s White Paper on Brexit. Now is surely the time for those concerned about the UK’s environment and climate change to mobilise, for the sake of animals, our planet and our health and that of our children. 


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