What are the Implications of Brexit for Environmental Legislation?

11 March, 2019

Leaving the EU and turning EU Law into UK Law is not a simple overnight process, it will take time, and in that time numerous hurdles will present themselves, along with significant opportunities for the environment. A vital starting point is to continue environmental protection and give certainty to businesses, whereas beyond that, reshaping policies to improve the environment and its role in the economy is vital.

IEMA and their stance

The Institute of Environmental Management & Assessment put forward their ‘core principles’ in October 2017, helping to develop and implement policies for life after the EU. Those 3 key values are:

  • High levels of environmental protection – no dropping of standards, plus the increased importance of natural capital in discussions
  • Full implementation of international environmental agreements that the UK and EU have signed up to
  • Sound science and evidence to be used in decisions that affect the environment

Building upon those 3 values are 5 ways that we must approach improvement to environmental legislation, which are:

  1. Full transposition of EU ‘environmental aquis’ into UK law
  2. Once transposed, a systematic process of improvement with the aim of better environmental outcomes, with less bureaucracy
  3. Integrating tools into policy delivery to effect positive change
  4. Regulation needs to identify environmental outcomes and their measurement
  5. Long-term policy consistency and certainty are needed to unlock investment and transition to an environmentally sustainable economy.

It all sounds fair to me.

My take on things

The key thing to know, independent of your views on leaving the European Union, is that all environmental legislation in the UK begins with the international treaties that we signed independently of the EU. Of course, the EU has led on implementation, but we signed these treaties by choice because they are progressive, and so we must continue to meet (and ideally exceed) our commitments, only now, we must figure it out independently.


Here are some things that have often been debated:

  • The EU has done amazing things for the environment through its legislation, especially for water and air pollution, protecting endangered species, and banning certain harmful chemicals. Leaving the EU does not mean undoing this hard work, but it does put it at risk. An ideal situation is to cherrypick the best policies and improve the ones that need refinement.
  • The UK has the worst coastal water quality in Europe, and many of our cities are failing to meet air quality levels. Despite the efforts of the EU, the UK has not made much progress on these topics, so it’s highly likely they will get worse without EU intervention, ideas, or presence.
  • One policy that the UK has repeatedly struggled with is the EU Common Fisheries Policy, which allowed for dead fish to be thrown back in the ocean to avoid breaking fishing quotas, until it was amended earlier this year. The policy, whilst not popular, is necessary, and the Government has admitted it will need a similar system.
  • Any laws that have been drawn into English and Scottish law from the EU will remain, but they can be changed if agreed upon. This could change slightly if we leave the EU but stay in the EEA. Remaining in the EEA would mean most environmental laws must stay at they are.
  • Any new environmental legislation could be passed quicker and be made more agile as it wouldn’t need to go through the EU.
  • Greenpeace did say “The UK’s environment would probably suffer badly, and the power of the EU as a progressive bloc in international negotiations would be weakened. It’s difficult to predict such a complex chain of consequences, but Brexit would almost certainly be bad for the UK’s environment, and very probably for the world,” however, other groups have said the opposite.
  • The UK is important to the EU environmentally, especially from a scientific point of view, due to world-class facilities and experts.


The reality regarding Brexit and its relationship with the environment is that right now there are so many variables and unknowns that it’s hard for even the most pragmatic expert to provide definites. The fear of the unknown is unsettling for many environmental and sustainability professionals, as well as the general public, so what we can hope for is that the decisionmakers moving forward are qualified and cautious.

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