• Do We Need Laws to Limit Brexit's Environmental Impact?

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Do We Need Laws to Limit Brexit's Environmental Impact?

Jan 16 2017

Since the vote to leave Europe last June, the impending exit of the UK from the EU has been fraught with doubt and worries. Now, MPs have thrown another log onto the fire of uncertainty by highlighting the danger which Brexit poses to British environmental concerns.

This is because the majority of the UK’s environmental legislation currently has its roots in EU directives, such as those which were funded and brought into effect by the LIFE programme. The chief concern from MPs and environmentalists is that by exiting the EU, we will also be relinquishing our legal obligations to meet proper ecological standards, which could have disastrous effects on British wildlife.

The Great Repeal Bill

In order to safeguard British flora and fauna, the Conservative government have promised to implement a so-called “Great Repeal Bill”, aimed at bringing UK law into line with pre-existing EU regulations.

However, such a feat might be trickier in practice than in theory. In fact, leading Tory minister and current Environment Secretary Angela Leadsom has herself admitted that about one third of existing environmental legislation will pose significant problems when it comes to Brexit, since Europe provides far greater protection to birds, animals and areas of natural importance than that which exists in UK law.

There is a further concern that even if the laws are brought into alignment, there’s the danger that the European components of the new legislation could be seen as “zombie laws” by politicians and citizens alike, meaning they are largely ignored and seldom updated, or that ministers will be able to usher in new laws without them being given the appropriate scrutiny.

Farming also under threat from Brexit

If the stringency of EU environmental protection is allowed to slacken under UK rule, agricultural practices could have a grave effect on our wildlife. At present, agricultural pollution already increases the cost of producing clean water, but should environmental legislation be loosened, these effects could be even further felt.

What’s more, the farming industry itself is also under threat from Brexit. The UK farming sector currently relies on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for over half of its revenue – if Britain exits the single market, this source of income will vanish entirely.

“UK farming faces significant risks - from a loss of subsidies and tariffs on farm exports, to increased competition from countries with weaker food, animal welfare and environmental standards,” explained Mary McCreagh, chairperson of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC). “The government must not trade away these key protections as we leave the EU. It should also give clarity over any future farm subsidies.”

Opportunity beckons

While Brexit does represent a danger for environmental and agricultural well-being in the UK, it can also be seen as an opportunity for the government to reform. Many critics of Europe have claimed that archaic farming laws from the EU have contributed to environmental decline in the home nations, and that the triggering of Article 50 is a superb opportunity to redress this balance.

“There needs to be substantial reform - if a farmer is holding water on his field upstream that is helping to prevent downstream flooding, that's not a commercial activity for a farmer but that's where public subsidy is warranted,” asserted the WWF's Trevor Hutchings. “There's a huge opportunity here to have a strong and thriving farming community, environment as well as servicing a public good.”

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