Is Brexit really bad news for the environmental sector?

Up in smoke? What now for the EU's environmental regulations?

UK membership of the EU has been seen by many in the environmental sector as a positive influence on issues like air quality and climate change. After Brexit though, what now? Matthew Farrow looks at the potential ramifications of the vote to leave the EU.

At a show of hands at last year’s Environmental Industries Commission annual conference, delegates  overwhelmingly expressed a preference for staying in the EU, and many of the luminaries of the ‘green blob’ have eloquently explained how EU membership has helped turn Britain from a country of landfills, toxic air and filthy beaches to respectable mid-table on most sustainability indicators.

Yet the public’s choice over Brexit turned less on the environment but on many issues and we will now see the start of the long trudge towards legal dissolution of our EU membership. So, once the initial shock at the result has dissipated, what should the green movement’s focus be? 

The priority, of course, must be to ensure that Brexit does not lead to the environmental disaster some predict.  For over 20 years the green community has been able to rely on the fact that the EU’s environmental competence has taken environmental standards out of day-to-day UK politics and enabled steady progress to be made.  What it has also done, I hope, is embedded an assumption in the public’s mind that clean water, clean air, more recycling and so on is their right and an automatic part of a modern society.   

So in air quality for example, while the EU Directives provided a vital hook for ‘Client Earth’ to challenge the government’s complacency, we are now seeing more of a media focus on rising asthma levels among young children and the iniquity of schoolchildren attending schools in areas poor air quality.  There will be a need for the green movement to ensure that public support (and that of stakeholders such as thoughtful business groups) is consolidated around core areas of EU environmental policy which must be retained or replicated post-Brexit.

Everyone will have their own list of what these core areas are, but top of mine would probably be air quality, REACH, energy efficiency standards and water quality (plus of course carbon budgets where the UK already has a domestic legal framework through the Climate Change Act).

In the spirit of looking for silver linings, let’s also remember that Brexit would of course give us the ability to tailor EU regulations where they have not been working well in a UK context.  It’s worth noting that a survey of environmental professionals by the Society for the Environment found that alongside general support for EU environmental policy, respondents did on balance see the lack of national flexibility as a disbenefit.  

A particular bugbear of mine is the separate collections provisions of the revised Waste Framework Directive – badly drafted legislation combined with a ‘one size fits all’ mentality have caused years of pointless lawyerly debates and a judicial review and undermined attempts to have a pragmatic UK discussion about improving the quality of recyclate.  Equally for some of the water quality directives, I hear concerns from my environmental laboratory members that the detection levels legally required have been set without regard to the measurement capabilities of laboratory equipment.  

One of the biggest drawbacks from Brexit would be a loss of influence over shaping the EU’s international stance in international environmental negotiations.  Over the years I’ve been involved in EU-level debates where the UK has been a vital progressive counterweight to member states such as Poland keen to protect their coal industries.  There is no easy way to restore this influence from outside the EU, but all of us in the green sphere, NGOs, trade associations and think tanks will need to redouble our work in building and nurturing our alliances with our sister organisations across the EU to maximise our influence beyond our shores.

There is no point in pretending that Brexit is not be a setback for progressive outward-looking environmentalism.  But the Climate Change Act shows that we are perfectly capable of producing strong, effective, home-grown environmental legislation. 

We will need to be doing much more of this the future.

Matthew Farrow is director of the Environmental Industries Commission.