How will Brexit affect the environment?

The European Union created 80 per cent of the United Kingdom’s environmental laws. So what will happen when the UK leaves the EU?

The rolling hills of Malham, Yorkshire Dales National Park. Withdrawing from the European Union could potentially threaten the UK's natural areas.
The rolling hills of Malham, Yorkshire Dales National Park. Could withdrawing from the European Union threaten the UK's natural areas? Image: Eco-Business

The EU has been instrumental in the protection of the UK environment; having created around 80 per cent of the UK’s environmental laws, including the EU-wide target for 50 per cent of municipal waste to be recycled or reused by 2020.

Post Brexit, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will oversee the UK’s resource policy, although their degree of authority will hinge on the type of Brexit the UK attains.

Michael Gove, Environment Secretary, has affirmed that Brexit will not adversely affect the environment and has even declared it an opportunity for greater environmental gains. However, it is unclear whether the UK will adopt the EU’s circular economy strategy which would not be passed into law before the currently scheduled date for Brexit of 29th March 2019.

A brief history of recycling

The ability to collect and process materials for recycling is a key precursor for a circular economy. 

It was not until the early 2000s that recycling started to become a significant part of UK society, with the Waste Strategy 2000 and introduction of statutory recycling targets, largely as a result of EU legislation.

Likewise, in 2011 Defra published a Review of Waste Policy in England with 13 commitments for the sustainable use of materials, also stemming from EU law.

More recently, UK recycling rates have fallen. Between 2016-2017 recycling of household waste was 43.7 per cent, meaning the UK is now likely to miss the EU target for 50 per cent of municipal waste to be recycled by 2020, stipulated in the 2008 Waste Framework Directive.

The 2018 Circular Economy Package (CEP) requires all plastic packaging to be recyclable by 2030. The Revised Legislative Framework on Waste also has a common EU target for 70 per cent of packaging waste to be recycled by 2030 as well as 65 per cent of urban waste by 2035.

Despite the UK’s imminent departure from the EU, it has agreed to work towards the CEP’s proposals. However, they won’t necessarily be fully converted into UK law following Brexit nor would the EU automatically be able to hold the UK accountable. Voluntary targets, without the EU threat, could create a space for environmentally-detrimental deviation.

Different leaving scenarios

The relationship between the UK and EU will vary rather significantly based on how the UK leaves the EU.

Staying within the European Economic Area (EEA), known as ‘soft Brexit’, would result in little change due to the UK still having to adhere to most environmental laws, although notably without a voice over the creation of new ones. Norway, for example, is subject to EU environmental directives including the recycling targets through the EEA.

With a Swiss-style bilateral agreement, where EU legislation does not directly apply, we would still be expected to meet environmental standards, as with Switzerland’s recycling rates. The UK may decide to keep current waste management laws to continue to export non-recyclable waste to Europe, although in a no-deal scenario this could become too costly.

In both the above scenarios, and obviously if the UK doesn’t leave the EU, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) would still have the ability to enforce EU environmental legislation. This is also likely to be the case during any form of transition period with increased negotiating time, something Teresa May has been trying to pass through parliament.

If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, ‘hard Brexit’, then the UK will be free to set its own regulations.

In 2017 Gove said the Government would establish an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), a new statutory body to enforce environmental law after Brexit. The “world-leading” organisation would “hold the powerful to account” and “embed protections for land, water, air and wildlife into policy-making as the UK leaves the EU”.

Details of the OEP were first given in the UK Environment Bill, drafted in December 2018, however the Institute for Government estimates that it would not be ready until 2021 meaning there would be a period with no oversight.

Greener UK, a coalition of 12 environmental groups including Greenpeace, WWF and Friends of the Earth, says the Bill “give[s] the environment and countryside less protection after Brexit than exists now.”

“There is no commitment to give the proposed new watchdog power to initiate legal action, nor is there any commitment to enshrine vital environmental principles […] in law.”

The fact that the Government is proposing changes that water down environmental law will come as no surprise to those who have seen its recent interactions with European legislation.

In May 2018, the UK was taken to court by the European Commission over its perpetual breaching of EU nitrogen dioxide limits, endangering public health. Without amendment the UK could have faced multimillion-euro fines. According to the Institute for Government thinktank, the UK is more likely to be taken to court over environmental law than any other EU policy. The EU has greater ability to enforce environmental trading standards because of the sheer size of the market that it is working within, unlike the UK alone.

The UK has also demonstrated some resistance to EU laws, previously opposing the 2035 urban waste strategy before agreeing in March 2018. Similarly, the UK initially tried to obstruct the EU ban on neonicotinoids before agreeing in November 2018, forcing its implementation to be delayed.

The future of the circular economy

Legislation has driven all recent advances to the circular economy, predominantly arriving from the EU. The future of the circular economy in the UK therefore depends on the type of Brexit:

‘Hard Brexit’ is likely to result in environmental legislative divergence between the UK and EU. This could create greater scope for innovation, however actions of the current UK government indicate that it would likely result in a weakening of legislation.

With ‘soft Brexit’ the UK will remain entirely intertwined within the EU rulebook governed by the ECJ. It would have to accept EU law, which is likely to move to ever-tightening legislation and promote the circular economy, but without a role in making it.

Aidan Bell is co-founder of sustainable materials company Envirobuild

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