Are Environmentalists Prepared for a Post-Brexit UK?

Withdrawing from the EU has massive implications for Britain's national environmental regulations

Regulation. Directive. Act. Convention. Environmental policy in the United Kingdom is entangled in a complex network of legislative papers of varying legislative power, administrative levels, and sectoral coverage. The marine environment in the UK alone is regulated by more than 100 pieces of legislation at the international, intranational, European, national and regional levels. This “horrendogramm” of policies makes it, on one hand, extremely difficult to avoid gaps in legislation when one level is removed — such as the European level through Brexit — but on the other hand, can function as a safety net when legislations are dismantled.

pigeon with backdrop of EU and British flagPhoto by Welsh photographs/FlickrEU policy has largely shaped the UK’s approach to environmental issues, as well as funding resources to maintain and restore the environment, the loss of which will reduce the force with which British environmentalists can move forward.

Environmental policy is inherently vulnerable to dismantling in a society predominantly driven by economic growth, but can develop a high resilience to such attacks when well-defended and designed. President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, for instance, ignited a chain reaction, revealing a remarkable suite of tools available to the public, professional, and political spheres to counteract the dismantling of policy.

Withdrawing from the European Union has massive implications for the UK’s national environmental regulation. Because the country has signed many international environmental conventions and agreements as a member of the EU, negotiating their new relationship as single party will require extensive resources. The task of ensuring compliance to environmental regulations, reporting, and accountability of the governmental machinery and its public institutions, all which was formerly covered by European bodies, will need to be redistributed. Barely any of this was discussed before the vote.

The three of us, along with 19 other students of the Technische Univeristät-Berlin decided to research the vulnerability of the UK’s environmental policies in the face of Brexit — not only due to our geographical proximity to the UK, but also because of the surprisingly low engagement of the British leadership with environmental concerns during the transition from the referendum to “Brexit-Day,” currently scheduled for March 2019.

Through personal interviews, an online survey, and participation in workshops, we probed for impressions of environmental activists and policymakers on the opportunities and obstacles Brexit poses.

Some of the questions we sought to answer include: How will the UK’s withdrawal from the EU affect environmental standards in the UK? Why are environmental concerns not being raised in the media and discussed in the political arena? What are environmental professionals thinking about the Brexit negotiations? Are environmentalists preparing for and actively counteracting possible attacks to the UK’s environmental standards? Here’s a synopsis of the responses we received to each of these questions.

How will the UK’s withdrawal from the EU affect environmental standards in the UK?

The UK’s withdrawal from the EU could potentially affect environmental standards in the UK both directly and indirectly. Negotiations will obviously transform finance, legislative bodies, and trade. The severity of the break-up will determine the amount of EU fundingand legislation that will continue flowing into the UK, and will depend on the nation’s willingness to negotiate terms under a “softer” Brexit — which would entail the UK remain in some EU economic communities, such as the European Economic Area or the European Free Trade Association, which would give the country certain trade rights, but also require it to stick to EU environmental regulations for products traded within the EU.

This is important, because EU policy has largely shaped the UK’s approach to environmental issues, as well as funding resources to maintain and restore the environment — and has provided a legal system for monitoring and regulating compliance, the loss of which will reduce the force with which UK environmentalists can move forward.

Further, trade regulations could potentially shift from the precautionary EU standard since the UK might be willing to sacrifice natural capital to secure an economic stronghold. Indirectly, the Brexit negotiations are completely overwhelming the UK government’s ability to address any other issues previously on the table. For example, the 25-year plan — which outlines the UK’s legally binding environmental commitments for the next 25 years — has been entirely swept aside, neglected by both Parliament and the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Why are environmental concerns not being raised in media and discussed in the political arena?

We found that public outcry to save the environment is not loud enough to ensure that the environment is part of Brexit negotiations. Politicians do not feel moved to act for the greater good of the environment for the UK and its citizens because they view negotiations through the lens of capitalism and are hyper-focused on the economy. The media plays along, directing the public’s attention to the hot topic of the week no matter where it is occurring in the world. The benefits of the UK potentially staying in the EU apprently couldn’t compete with the emotionally charged smear campaigns aganist the EU; some of the people we interviewed alluded to the media’s blaming any inconvenience or difficult political outcome on the EU regardless of whether the EU was involved or not. This played out as propaganda, creating what some felt was the lynchpin to the “leave” platform by manipulating voters to harbor negative feelings towards the EU. The political drama surrounding Brexit was emotionally draining. It’s only afte the vote that UK citizens have begun reflecting on importance the EU to their quality of life. Tens of thousands have since left the UK.

What are environmental professionals thinking about the Brexit negotiations?

Environmental professionals working within academia, NGOs, and the private and public sector overall, expressed pessimism about Brexit. Most of them talked about uncertainties related to employment, funding, legal transposition, and environmental protection — as well as concerns about deregulation — far more often than opportunities. They were concerned about the possible de-prioritization of the environment and loss of institutional capacity during and after the negotiations. Some, however, also foresaw potential opportunities to review and tailor policy to specific needs of the UK. They expressed hope that the government would refrain from a so-called “hard Brexit,” and that the negotiations would become more fair to and inclusive of environmental issues.

Are environmentalists preparing for and actively counteracting possible attacks to the UK’s environmental standards?

The answers of environmental professionals — working in environmentally related jobs in academia, NGOs, as well as the private and public sector — were overall pessimistic.

Though most environmentalists surveyed appeared to have some clear ideas about the possible negative and positive outcomes of Brexit negotiations, the majority struggled to identify actions or strategies to sway negotiations in their favor — or at least prevent the worst, such as the UK abolishing the use of the precautionary principle altogether when making decisions that impact our environment — from happening. We perceived that especially “smaller players” were in a state of paralysis caused by uncertainties connected to Brexit negotiations. Respondents from larger NGOs or institutions however, have been increasingly lobbying in favor of strong environmental standards through collaborations, such as Greener UK and UKELA. Greener UK is a coalition of 13 major environmental organizations, such as WWF and Greenpeace, who joined forces to defend environmental standards during the Brexit negotiations.

So what are the possibilities for changing these trajectories?

We’re inclined to contrast recent political power shifts in the US with those in the UK.

Within days of Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a variety of US-based environmental groups began organizing to oppose Trump’s actions. In contrast, after Brexit, paralyzed British environmentalists took months to organize protests, draft proposals, and state their positions. A UK watchdog called “Risk Trackers,” for example, was slow to surface and received far less public attention than comparable American efforts.

Power shifts in the US and UK were both perceived as potential threats to national political attitudes toward the environment. But as Friends of the Earth CEO, Craig Bennett, pointed out, given that neither the “leave” or the “remain” movement discussed Brexit’s possible environmental implications. This, he says, meant that no one could “claim that the soaring rhetoric that we needed to ‘take back control’ means there is a green light for the UK to again become the dirty man of Europe.”

It is true that there was an absence of larger public demonstrations or instantly, well-organized resistance to Brexit from environmentalists. But on the other hand, scientific research argues that in case of tremendous political events, well informed, inclusive societies are less likely to offer such resistance. Based on this kind of research can it be concluded that the British government is closer to its citizens than its US counterpart? Highly unlikely!

Other scientific findings — which show that more decentralized power structures, like the US federal governance system, are likely to offer a more robust opposition to any efforts by a national government to overlook environmental issues — offer valuable insights into the distinct behavior of resistance between these two countries. In the US, city mayors and governors of states, for example, formed a powerful opposition toward their chief of state early on, whereas the UK’s centralized power structure led to a sluggish, loose organization of protest.

In any case, political discussions affecting environmental policy are strongly influenced by economics. Trade associations like the National Farmers Union and the Chemical Industries Association promote borderless access to foreign markets, flexible workers rights, and the softening of the precautionary principle — indicating a clear distance from the labor and environmental standards of the EU.

On a more hopeful note, calls for consideration of environmental issues are becoming louder in the country. Greener UK is already calling on the government to get working to convert the entire body of EU environmental law into domestic laws that would cover a host of issues, ranging from air pollution, to protecting harbor porpoises, to stopping the decline of bees.

Given the sheer complexity and scope of Brexit and UK environmental policy, an awful lot of manpower and expertise will be necessary to cope with these formidable challenges. We belive a new, proactive attitude is advisable in this regard. Environmentalists need to perceive Brexit as an opportunity to raise their voices and influence, and a chance to create new, effective environmental laws.

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