How would a Brexit affect environmental protection in the UK?

10 June 2016

In 2013, the EU introduced an interim ban on a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids.

Two years later, before the EU had finished its review of the ban, the UK government partially overruled it. Does this difference in approach say anything about the future of environmental protection should the UK vote to leave the EU on 23 June?


Neonicotinoids (neonics for short) are used in the agriculture industry against sap-feeding insects like aphids. They are also a possible culprit behind an alarming rise in the rate of bee deaths. Whilst research has started to indicate that neonics negatively affect bees, the EU's precautionary approach to environmental pollution made it one of the first international organisations to take action.


As well as being precautionary, the EU approach to environmental protection promotes prevention and rectification of pollution at source, and is based on the polluter paying for it. In contrast, the British approach, at least up to the 1980s, was to deal with pollution by diluting and dispersing it, and only after “sound science” existed that it was causing a problem.


Environmental policies introduced by the EU have had a wide impact on the UK. Birds like the hen harrier are protected from threats like habitat loss and hunting by the Birds Directive. The Water Framework Directive sets out a joined up approach to improving the status of all rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal and ground water and progressively more stringent emission standards have driven down limits for exhaust emissions for new vehicles.


As a supranational organisation, the EU is more likely to deliver stronger environmental protections than Britain would do on its own. Individual countries often have weaker incentives to deal with environmental issues because the impacts are remote or dispersed. One example is air pollution - much of the UK’s sulphur and nitrogen pollutants are exported to continental Europe by prevailing winds. Taking decisions at a supranational level means decision makers are more aware of the bigger picture impacts of environmental degradation.


However, removing the influence of Brussels over the environment could help avoid disenchantment and allow faster improvements to schemes that do not perform as expected. Much has been made of the fact that powerful kettles could be the next home appliance facing extinction under an EU scheme to fight climate change, a big issue in a nation that consumes six times more tea than the European average. And the EU was seen as slow to respond to accusations that the CAP and Common Fisheries Policy encourage excessively intensive farming and the discard of millions of tonnes of edible fish a year.


Bees, emissions standards and powerful kettles will probably rank close to the bottom of a post-Brexit priority list and, in the short run, it is unlikely that there will be any sudden environmental shocks if we vote out. Taking a longer view, although the UK would likely be required to implement minimum environmental protections in order to trade with a residual EU (for example, the Emissions Trading Scheme Directive applies to Norway and Iceland as members of the EEA), the risk is that some of the more ambitious and progressive environmental protection solutions would not make it onto the domestic agenda.

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