Brexit: how will the environment fare?

David Tooby discusses how leaving the European Union on our environmental science

NUSU
17th October 2016

For environmental science the uncertainty surrounding Brexit is particularly troubling, as much of the legislation which safeguards our wildlife and environment is based on EU directives. These directives have had an overwhelmingly positive effect on environmental issues in the UK. In addition to this, very little has been revealed by the government with regards to environmental legislation, and such issues are classically ignored in British politics.

The ‘Great Repeal Bill’ has recently been announced, which will allow the transcription of EU directives into domestic law, keeping desired components and discarding those which are not. Pro-Brexit rhetoric involved ‘removing the red tape inhibiting development’, referring to restrictions enforced to protect threatened and ecologically important species and habitats. In rewriting this legislation, especially without positive pressure from the EU, environmental aspects may be underrepresented in favour of easier planning permissions and therefore quicker development. This would be highly detrimental to ecological processes in the UK. However, the ability to rewrite legislation, and not being restricted by EU directives, may allow for more adaptable systems of environmental protection necessary for a rapidly changing climate. For example protected areas, traditionally static areas of heightened environmental protection, may instead be varied spatially and temporally to fit changing species range and biome shifts.

In recent years steps have been taken by the international community towards a more sustainable society, with growing acknowledgement of the importance of large scale cooperation and unilateral efforts in these matters. Despite Brexit not affecting the UK’s involvement with global treaties such as CITES, and membership of international bodies such as the IPCC and IPBES, there will be changes in our involvement with EU directed projects. One such project, Horizon 2020, provides grants for research, technology and innovation in order to move towards a sustainable and fair society. Though this project is open to all countries, Brexit may cause a shift in the UK’s political direction towards less progressive destinations. Funding has been guaranteed for Horizon 2020 projects until we leave the EU, though beyond that is still unclear.

There may also be difficulties in international collaborations in environmental research, as cross-border movement becomes more complicated and gaps in funding emerge. A confidential survey of Russel Group Universities conducted by The Guardian found significant discrimination against UK researchers in EU projects, as British researchers become a ‘financial liability’ due to funding insecurity. Funding has been guaranteed for projects involving farmers until 2020, and agro-environmental schemes agreed before we leave the EU. However there is no promise on non-agricultural projects, potentially leaving environmental practice with vastly reduced or non-existent government funding.

Brexit may have effects disastrous to the environment if such factors are not given sufficient notice. However, increased autonomy in legislation may allow more flexibility in ecosystem management and protected areas, and an ability to adapt quicker with contemporary research. Whether Brexit proves harmful to environmental health, or whether it leads to more dynamic and progressive protection depends entirely on the actions of the Government overseeing this transition. With careful decision making and effective prioritisation the UK may emerge from this transition still part of a progressive vision of a green, sustainable society.

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