What does leaving the EU mean for the environment?

12 July 2016

This briefing is largely based on the briefing by the House of Commons Library ‘EU referendum: impact of an EU exit in key UK policy areas’. The opinions and judgements it contains are theirs. We expect to review and add to these articles periodically as events develop.

The government will have more scope to change environmental objectives in the UK outside of the EU, if it wants to do so. There will be a less far-reaching legal process to enforce environmental policy and challenge its interpretation, as well as fewer ramifications if the UK fails to meet environmental targets.

Environmental policy has been an important part of EU law since the Single European Act in 1986, so UK and EU environmental law are closely entwined.

The House of Commons Library says that the UK has historically had stricter standards than the EU has enforced in some areas, such as animal rights, but not others, such as improving air quality.

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Air, Water and Waste

Leaving the EU will give the UK government scope to relax standards and review any deadlines for meeting targets in all these areas, if it wanted to. It would also remove the threat of fines or legal action for failing to meet targets.

However, the House of Commons Library says this doesn’t necessarily mean that environmental legislation will be halted or reversed. In some areas, such as air pollution, it would be politically difficult for the UK to lower standards due to increasing awareness about health risks. In other areas, such as drinking water standards, UK law is actually stricter than the minimum required by the EU.

In some cases international guidelines that will continue to apply to the UK, such as the World Health Organisation’s guidelines on drinking water quality. Since these are only guidelines, they are not enforced as strictly.

Chemicals Regulation

In recent years, systems that govern the safe use of chemicals have been created by the EU. The UK might be able to reduce the burden on industry by pulling out of them.

But joining these EU systems in the first place required substantial investment from UK industries, so the House of Commons Library says that switching out of them may be unpopular.

Norway, Iceland and other countries who are not members of the EU have chosen to adopt the same laws

Habitats Protection

Last year, an EU review of its Habitats and Wild Birds directives revealed strong support amongst UK environmental groups for keeping these directives as they are.

The UK government has said it doesn’t wish to renegotiate these laws, although it does want to improve their implementation, make sure they take on board the most recent scientific evidence, and factor in the UK’s economic needs (15.50 in this video).

The UK has a long history of wildlife protection and has had specifically designated areas for protection since 1949.

Outside the EU, the government will have more scope to choose how these laws are implemented. The EU will play no role in enforcing or judging their interpretation, as it has done in the past.

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