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What does leaving the EU mean for UK environment regulations?

2 March 2017


The British government prepares to leave the EU

As the British government prepares for the long and challenging process of withdrawing from the European Union, doubts have been cast over the UK’s ability to enforce regulations regarding the environment and climate change.

The EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee has expressed the concerns, stating that it believes it will be difficult for the UK to stick to existing environmental standards without any independent body making sure domestic policies are adhered to.

As part of the Union, the UK has had to comply with environmental protection and climate action laws set out and enforced by European institutions. The Sub-Committee has noted that by overseeing compliance across all member states, the European Commission and Court of Justice have played significant roles in ensuring the UK follows suit.

However, looking ahead to Britain’s withdrawal, it is unclear whether the government will deviate from standards imposed by Europe and how it may be held to account on its own energy targets going forward.

Why does it matter?

When the time comes to disengage from the EU, the government will enact what’s been dubbed the Great Repeal Bill. This will effectively mean taking all current laws imposed by the EU and placing them into domestic control, allowing the UK to retain, modify or completely scrap them on a case by case basis.

The House of Lords’ EU Select Committee – which oversees matters relating to the EU – has suggested that the UK may need to continue working in co-operation with standards set throughout the continent, even though the government may not be obliged to do so. The Committee also suggests that some form of mechanism or body would be needed to replace the European Commission, in order to enforce regulations.

On top of this, a coalition of activist and advocacy groups has been established to call on the UK government to protect current environmental laws outlined by the EU when converting to domestic law. The group known as Greener UK – consisting of organisations like the National Trust, WWF and Greenpeace – has published a manifesto urging the government to continue cooperating with the EU on energy and the environment post-Brexit.

Despite disentangling ourselves politically from the continent, these groups stress that energy usage in this country and the knock-on environmental effects will continue to be felt across neighbouring countries, and vice versa. This has provoked around 200 MPs from all political parties to pledge their support to Greener UK, committed to working to:

Establish the UK as a world leader on the environment by committing to match or exceed current environmental, wildlife and habitat protections;

Ensure the UK leads on climate change by publishing robust low carbon investment plans and ratifying the Paris Agreement in 2016;

Create a countryside richer in nature by supporting farmers and landowners to deliver environmental benefits alongside a thriving farming sector.

Doesn’t the government want to keep laws?

Theresa May’s government has kept famously tight-lipped on its plans for Brexit, so while retaining existing standards seems to be ideal, it’s still unclear whether the UK will continue in that direction. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) is insistent that the government is committed to lowering harmful emissions and improving air quality through the use of cleaner and more efficient energy sources.

A spokesperson for Defra stated: “We are clear that we are ready to deliver all of this government’s priorities and will continue to build the right skills, experience and leadership to deal with the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead,” going on to note that the government aims for the environment to be “in a better state than we found it.”

However, others have expressed concerns over the lack of solid information given on the government’s plans. Most notably, the EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee have remarked that the UK government is “worryingly complacent” over its apparent confidence that future governments will be able to regulate themselves without an independent body to uphold standards.

While still unclear, the government has highlighted the importance of the energy sector and the environment in the country’s long-term future. As part of its overall Brexit strategy, further information will eventually be unveiled, but until then, it’s understandable why the government’s persistent silence has unsettled many concerned about the future of renewable energy usage, production and environmental impacts.

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