Brexit or Bremain?

Being a member of the EU has had a significant positive impact on environmental standards in a number of areas such as air quality, waste disposal, water pollution and biodiversity (Thomas, 2016), giving the UK a bigger platform to voice environmental objectives while providing access to a wealth of knowledge.


On the other hand the UK has been at the forefront of scientific research and has helped influenced the strategic and long term direction of EU environmental laws and policies (also referred to as acquis), affecting legislation, legal acts and court decisions (Environmental Audit Committee, 2016).

As legislation is the central driver in the environmental profession, it plays an important role in environmental management and assessment. EU legislation has allowed for legal implementation ensuring environmental action is taken on a faster timetable with less risk allowing for longer term planning and greater certainty for businesses looking to make green investment decisions (Burns, 2013; Environmental Audit Committee, 2016; Institute for European Environmental Policy, 2016), with the EU investing £500 million in projects and environmental innovation from the EU budget (Institute for European Environmental Policy, 2016).

Environmental directives

EU directives, which set objectives but allow significant flexibility for member states to develop and implement them in ways that reflect national circumstances are usually transposed into UK law by statutory instruments, with most environmental directives transposed under powers granted by section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 (Holmes, 2016). The EU precautionary approach to environmental protection supports prevention of pollution at its source and getting the polluter to pay for it, making it one of the first international organisations to take action. Whereas up till the 1980s, the British approach was to dilute and disperse pollution (Franklin, 2016).

The EC Birds Directive, introduced by the EU and one of the oldest pieces of legislation on the environment, has had a significant impact on the UK, requiring member states to designate Special Protection Areas (SPAs) for 194 threatened species and migratory bird species. The SPAs form part of Natura 2000 – the EUs network of protected nature sites, which protects wild bird species by cooperating across borders through halting the loss of wetlands and other key habitats and banning activities that directly threaten birds. This has led to EU Member states classifying over 3,600 SPAs halting degradation, the loss of wetlands and other key habitats in the EU and an increase in bird populations over the last decade (European Commission, 2004)

The EU Bathing Water Directive effected a change in sewage treatment and the release of nitrates, which has not only improved the environmental quality of beaches across the EU, with 95% meeting the minimum water quality standards set out in EU legislation, but also the economic gain for the country by attracting more visitors and boosting local economies. The Directive also requires member states to monitor and assess bathing water for at least two parameters of bacteria and inform the public about the water quality and beach management, with the European Commission and European Environmental Agency publishing a summary report every year on the quality if bathing water, tracking 21,000 bathing sites (European Commission, 2016).

The EU Air Quality Framework Directive and related daughter directive has seen our emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide fall significantly, even though much of the UK’s sulphur and nitrogen pollutants are exported to continental Europe by prevailing winds. By making resolutions at a supranational level means decision makers are more aware of the bigger picture impacts of environmental degradation (Franklin, 2016). If the government fails to meet its obligations the EU has the capacity to can impose penalties and heavy fines. To reduce their carbon emissions various countries within the EU implemented different policies: Denmark increased renewable energy, while Sweden implemented a carbon tax compared with Bulgaria and Uzbekistan who expanded their industrial activity by 2% and 10% while achieving emission cuts of 5% and 2% (The Environmentalist, May 2016).

Little appears to have been planned in the case the UK leaving the EU, although there are several changes that are likely to occur:

The UK will cease to influence the direction of travel of EU policy or participate as a decision maker in policies that affect the environment, thereby removing long term certainty for many businesses.

Where responsibility is devolved to governments in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, there is likely to be tensions within areas of policymaking. Prolonged negotiations would create significant risk for the environment and green investments needed to improve the UK environmental performance (Institute for European Environmental Policy, 2016) and all four UK jurisdictions would need to legislate to avoid vacuums in environmental law and also to ensure that the UK complied with obligations under international environmental treaties (Holmes, 2016).

The government’s view is that this would trigger a “long and tortuous” negotiations (Environmental Audit Committee, 2016). This raises many unanswered questions as to the relationship the UK would have outside of the EU. Although the UK has been at the forefront of providing scientific and policy advice to the development of EU environmental legislation, many of the initiatives would not have taken place without the EU’s hard legal implementation in place, and the improvement to business practice would not be realised.



Burns, C., 2013. The Implications for UK Environmental Policy of a Vote to Exit the EU. York. [Online] Available at: Accessed on: 10th June 2016

Environmental Audit Committee, 2016. EU and UK Environmental Policy: Third Report of Session 2015-16. London. House of Commons

European Commission, 2004. Why do we need to take care of our birds? [Online] Available at: Accessed on: 14th June 2016

European Commission, 2016. Bathing water quality [Online] Available at: Accessed on: 14th June 2016

Franklin, D., 2016. How would a Brexit affect environmental protection in the UK? [Online] Available at:  Accessed on: 14th June 2016

Holmes, S, 2016. Brexit: the direction of environmental policy and law. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 09th June 2016].

Institute for European Environmental Policy, 2016. The potential policy and environmental consequences for the UK of a departure from the European Union. London

The environmentalist, 2016. Decoupling evidence grows. May 2016, pp. 4.

Thomas, L., 2016 What does Brexit mean for the environment? It’s a question that the Leave camp can’t answer. [Online] Available at: [Accessed: 09th June 2016]

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