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Brexit and what it could mean for sustainability

What might Brexit mean for environmental protection and the wider sustainability agenda in Britain? More at www.remsol.co.uk

How will Brexit affect the UK’s sustainability aspirations? It’s a question many of us are asking, with many more attempting to answer. Here’s a quick round-up of the views currently being expressed.

A group of academics, former civil servants and past leaders of a selection of ‘green’ NGOs believe that Brexit will have negative consequences for the environment and the sustainability agenda. In an open letter to Liz Truss, Secretary of State at Defra, they said:

“Britain’s membership of the European Union has had a hugely positive effect on the quality of Britain’s beaches, our water and rivers, our air and many of our rarest birds, plants and animals and their habitats. Being part of the Union has enabled us to co-ordinate action and agree policies that have improved our quality of life, including the air we breathe, the seas we fish in, and have protected the wildlife which crosses national boundaries. Higher European manufacturing standards for cars, lights and household appliances have lowered consumer energy costs, and stimulated business innovation.

“The environmental rules of engagement with the EU after Brexit are very uncertain and would be subject to lengthy and protracted negotiation due to our new status as an outsider. We would no longer be able to shape EU policy and our influence on the environmental performance of other member states would decline very sharply once we were no longer at the negotiating table.

“We therefore conclude that Brexit would be damaging for Britain’s environment.”

Friends of the Earth has expressed similar views, promoting the opinions of Dr Charlotte Burns from York University who has said:

“Through its EU membership the UK government has been required to put in place a host of policies with strict targets that can be legally enforced, and to provide regular publicly available reports upon its performance in relation to those targets. If the UK exits from the EU but remains part of the European Economic Area the huge progress made in improving the UK environment could be lost in the absence of external pressure and auditing from EU actors, whilst the UK would still be subject to a wide range of EU laws but with little influence over their content. A total withdrawal suggests a much wider erosion of environmental policy, which is perhaps the intention of the right within and without of the Conservative Party, but one which risks significant economic damage to the UK.”

In what is perhaps a more objective and less politically-charged view, this Parliamentary research briefing notes that, as far as environmental policy is concerned:

“The environment is an area in which UK and EU law have become highly entwined. The effects of an EU exit would depend on whether the UK decided to lower, raise or maintain current environmental requirements in areas such as air and water quality, emissions, waste, chemicals regulation or habitats protection.

“If the UK left the EU, it would have more scope for changing environmental objectives in the UK and there would also be a less far-reaching judicial process to enforce the implementation of environmental policy and challenge its interpretation.”

On energy and climate change, it goes on to note:

“The Government is unlikely to want to reverse the trend for more transparency and a level playing field at EU level which is currently being implemented by the Commission’s Third Energy Package and by the 2015 Framework for Energy Union.

“An EU exit would not remove the legally binding UK climate targets under the Climate Change Act 2008 although it could increase focus on all aspects of UK-based generation. This could especially be the case if exit resulted in poorer security of supply through decreased interconnectivity to Europe, reduced harmonisation of EU energy markets, or less investment into the UK by multinational companies.

“An exit would affect the UK’s international climate targets under the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Currently the UK negotiates as a part of the EU block and has internally set targets that together with those of other Member States aims to meet the EU’s overall target.

“Withdrawal from the EU would have to address that lack of a UK specific target under UNFCCC. It was also widely recognised in the competency review that the negotiating as part of an EU block was beneficial as it had more influence at an international level than if individual Member States acted alone.”

The Vote Leave campaign, on the other hand, says that the environment and businesses would benefit from Brexit. It points to 130 miles of red-tape that strangles business growth, made largely by unelected and unaccountable Brussels bureaucrats, and says that Britain outside the EU would be better able to determine its own national priorities and allocate spending accordingly.

Swings and roundabouts

In truth, the effects of Brexit on Britain’s approach to environmental protection and the sustainability agenda will probably be somewhere in the middle of the extremes promoted by groups that support and oppose the idea of a Britain independent of the EU.

The notion that a Britain outside the EU will quickly redraw earlier environmental legislation and degrade the protections we enjoy is, in our opinion, a greatly overstated threat.

But, likewise, and for the same reasons, Brexit wouldn’t signal a ‘bonfire of the red-tape’ that some suggest it might. In fact, as a business with experience of working for multinational clients that have operations across the EU area, we’ve seen first hand how Britain at times implements EU laws with far more rigour than its European neighbours to whom the same laws are meant to apply uniformly. In other words, by employing a stricter interpretation, we make it harder for ourselves and risk putting Britain at a disadvantage to its European rivals.

The main potential benefits of a break from the EU would appear to be the ability to decide our own environmental priorities, although these will still have to be aligned with our broader international commitments.  We’ll also be better able to decide how our environmental and sustainability objectives will be met and how we’ll finance them. It could even be argued that Brexit could make more money available for spending on environmental protections.

Whatever the result of the EU referendum on 23 June 2016, there will be both swings and roundabouts in store for the environment and sustainability in Britain.

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