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BREXIT: 77% of British Environmental Professionals want to remain part of the EU

As British voters prepare for their in/out referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the EU.  What are the potential consequences for the environment and for environmental policy making in the UK should voters choose to leave the EU tomorrow?  All of ENEP’s UK professional bodies have been busy surveying and consulting their members on this question.  In a joint SocEnv and ENDS survey of 893 environmental professionals (attached below) across the UK, over 77% were declared for REMAIN in the EU.  Nevertheless, the survey asked what a UK Government should do following the referendum result on 23rd June. The table below shows what Environmental professionals believe the priorities should be:-

In its own survey, CIEEM, found that EU law provides benefits in terms of protection of wildlife habitats and species, rigorous standards for pollution control, and the cleanliness of bathing beaches – all of which have been delivered because of EU legislation. Its argues that the positive impact of the Natura 2000 network of protected areas has contributed to creating a coherent and interconnected mechanism across the continent for the benefit of many species and habitats.  Uncertainty, it argues would not just extend to species and habitats but also effect housing, construction and engineering, all of which interact with environmental legislation until any new UK legislation would be put in place. CIEEM highlights that the interim period leaves ambiguity around the planning system which could result in a decrease in activity and investment in these sectors.

Meanwhile, amongst the environmental scientists at IES, 68% of the members surveyed recognised that membership of the EU was a positive thing. IES argues that the links between human wellbeing and changing environmental systems are essential through ecosystem services research.  Collectively, EU countries face many global challenges, from climate change, growing (and increasingly urban) populations with ever increasing resource demands, pollution of our air, seas and watercourses, species loss and land-use change amongst many others. These are issues with relevance for us all, and if we are to deal with them, we need to encourage research which can develop our understanding of the functioning of socio-environmental systems, promote innovation in ‘greener’, less resource intensive technologies and systems, and strive to ensure the use of evidence in decision-making in government and the private sector.  Science, it argues, is integral to successful environmental protection and must sit at the heart of our drive to transition to a sustainable society, but crucially this science needs to be inter-disciplinary, collaborative, and often cross-border. The UK has recently been described as a “science superpower”punching above its weight and there are various initiatives and mechanisms related to our membership of the EU which contribute significantly to our strength in this area. Overall 14.87% of FP7 projects were based in the UK, a figure that is second only to Germany. 

However, should the leave vote prevail, IEEP in the UK has been looking at the impact of leave on future environmental policy making through one of two possible scenarios

Scenario 1) - “inside the EEA”,  a scenario based on the UK’s future relationship with its European neighbours as part of the European Economic Area (EEA) enjoying tariff free trade across the Single Market with a financial contribution to the EU budget or;
Scenario 2) - “entirely outside”,  as a country outside Europe altogether with no trade agreement.

In the EU, environmental policy making grew in importance over several decades starting from the 1970s. During that time it has revealed some of the strengths and weaknesses of adopting a common EU approach. Today, based on the 7th Environmental Action Plan, the logic prevails that many environmental issues are cross-border in character or impact, and are better addressed by co-operative action than unilaterally. In parallel, the growing importance of the single market has provided impetus to create common EU rules, particularly for product standards, permitting and target setting procedures avoid 28 separate approaches. This helps to avoid problematic differences in national rules as well as distortions in competition. These political and economic considerations have been underpinned by the cross-cutting references to environmental principles in the EU Treaty, and by the formal overall goal of sustainable development, which has no direct counterpart in UK legislation. Being part of a strong unified bloc has also allowed the EU to have an influential voice within international negotiations on global environmental issues.

Whilst adopting EU rules is a demanding process, due to the separation of powers between an executive proposing the draft legislation and a colegislature shared between the European Parliament and Council of Ministers that needs to adopt those rules for them to become law in each Member State, compromises between different visions for environmental protection are often necessary. This approach provides a clear sense of direction and momentum and, in many countries, it facilitates a more ambitious approach than they might feel able to adopt if they were acting on their own. Once agreed, however, measures are changed rather infrequently, creating considerable confidence in the underlying legal framework and the long-term policy direction. This helps both public authorities and private investors to plan ahead with greater confidence. A record of relative consistency, backed up by a system of strategic forward-planning based on periodic reviews of future challenges, has proved one of the benefits of acting at EU level.

As a result, many businesses have benefitted from the establishment of these common rules and from a more harmonised approach. High common standards have created a new and sizeable market on a predictable timescale for a wide range of greener products, ranging from more efficient electrical white goods through to cars and household goods with fewer toxic chemicals. Although rising standards have generated some costs, particularly in some established industries where investment in cleaner production systems has been required, they have also created new markets and business opportunities. There have been both positive and negative effects on employment, which are difficult to quantify for EU environmental policy as a whole. However, “green” industries now account for a significant proportion of new investment and employment in the UK, and the emerging EU initiative to build a “circular economy” could expand this market considerably further.

The list sets out some of the key environmental achievements of EU countries working together within a common legislative framework that would have not occurred at the same level if they had acted alone:

  • A substantial decline in most industrial sources of air and water pollution, particularly in improving urban air quality and in tackling diffuse water pollution, for example from farming.
  • A fall in greenhouse gas emissions and rapid recent growth in the deployment of renewable energy.
  • Significant reductions in the pressures on human health from environmental pollution.
  • A significantly improved system of protection for species and habitats.
  • A transformation in waste management, with a major increase in recycling rates and the first steps towards the creation of a more circular economy.
  • The establishment of a thorough system for the review of the safety of chemicals that can be expected to lead to the future withdrawal and substitution of various toxic substances.
  • The foundations for addressing the mounting pressures on the marine environment in the form of a legislative framework which is starting to have an effect.
  • Improvements on access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters at EU level.

Future scenarios

Two future scenarios are based on whether the UK wants to retain access to the EU’s internal market (scenario 1) or not (scenario 2).

Under Scenario 1 (“inside the EEA”), most EU environmental law would continue to apply to the UK with some important exceptions, notably the nature (Birds and Habitats) and Bathing Water Directives. A future government would have the scope to weaken the level of environmental protection in the UK as there is not a strong appetite to pursue all the goals of EU nature conservation legislation. The CAP and the CFP would cease to apply, almost certainly giving rise to changes in policy, expenditure and environmental outcomes. At the same time, the UK would be excluded from decision-making over EU policy and from participating as part of the EU in international negotiations on a range of environmental agreements. Nor would the UK be likely to significant exercise influence over the EU’s position in those negotiations. This appears an unequivocal drawback of departure. Meanwhile, the UK would continue to contribute substantially to the EU budget.

Under Scenario 2 (“entirely outside”), future UK governments would in principle have the scope to adopt either stronger or weaker environmental standards than at present. Based on recent UK government responses to a range of environmental proposals from the European Commission in recent years, it seems more likely that the current government, and possibly its successors, would opt for a less ambitious approach than that adopted by the EU in a number of areas, including air pollution, recycling, and aspects of nature conservation. There is a risk that a future government might seek to use arguments claiming that in order to maximise UK competitiveness, it would be necessary to lower standards, including environmental ones. Such an approach, and even the perceived risk of it being adopted, can be expected to create increased uncertainty for business investments in general, and for green businesses in particular.

Finally, if the UK remains in the EU, it remains bound by existing environmental legislation and can play a significant role in future decisions, including the adoption of new measures and the amendment of existing ones. Equally, it can influence the future of the CAP, the CFP and other policies affecting the environment, including trade (the UK is an active supporter of TTIP). Within the EU, it will be in a position to contribute to the shaping of a series of important decisions, for example on climate and energy policy (with major proposals due in 2016), the future of the “Better Regulation” agenda, and the development of a “circular economy” – a key EU project for the next decade or more.

READ THE SocEnv SURVEY / READ THE IEEP REPORT / READ THE CIEEM SURVEY REPORT / IES & THE IMPORTANCE OF EU TO SCIENCE & THE ENVIRONMENT

(Courtesy of research conducted by SocENV/ENDS, CIEEM, IES and IEEP)

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Issue 49