photo of beech and other trees in autumn

Brexit’s impact on nature: why we’re involved

Why is Friends of the Earth campaigning around Brexit? What effect will Brexit have on the UK environment? What will it mean for nature? Our answers.
  Published:  06 Apr 2018    |      6 minute read

How will Brexit affect the UK environment?

Over 80% of the UK’s environmental laws come from the European Union (EU).

Brexit's main environmental risk is the possibility that these EU protections might be lost or weakened if we’re outside the EU. Groups have already raised concerns that some laws have not been faithfully transferred, while others could be made easier to scrap in the future.

It’s not just our environmental laws that are at risk. The legal mechanisms to properly implement and enforce them also originate in the EU. This could leave us with gaps in our environmental protections and difficulties in enforcing our laws.

There will have to be new ways to hold the government to account. Otherwise, we might not be able to use our environmental laws to protect our wildlife and natural resources.

These risks are even greater if we leave the EU without a deal. A no-deal Brexit wouldn’t give the government enough time to ensure our environmental protections work properly after exit day. And with the government scrambling to manage the chaos of a no-deal Brexit, make new trade deals and keep the country running, protecting and improving our environment is likely to slip to the bottom of the priority list.

That’s why a no-deal Brexit can’t be an option.

Won’t the UK government protect our environment?

The government’s unreliable track record makes it clear that we need to be able to hold it to account.

The EU has previously done this – for example, by giving the UK government multiple warnings for exceeding EU limits on air pollution. The campaign group Client Earth has used these limits to take the UK government to the European Court of Justice a number of times.

The UK government has only just started to explain how it plans to replace this system – a system that should deter it from ignoring its own environmental laws. But the plans are weak and could take years to come into operation. In a no-deal situation we need them up and running properly immediately.

To continue protecting our health and the environment we must properly transfer EU laws and make sure they can be enforced after exit day. And to ensure we have the time and resources to do this, we need to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

By leaving the EU the UK could also lose out on stronger environmental protections in the future.

In the past other European countries have called and voted for stronger protections which improved EU environmental standards. In effect, the green actions of other EU countries have improved our own environmental protections - something we won’t benefit from after exit day.

Greener UK is a coalition of environmental organisations working to protect the environment from risks associated with Brexit. It's been looking at what a no-deal Brexit means for the environment, and running a regular 'risk tracker' to see if the situation is getting better or worse. And it isn't good news.

Shouldn’t Friends of the Earth be campaigning on other things, not Brexit?

Most of the issues that Friends of the Earth does and could campaign on will be affected by Brexit – including our current work on nature, air pollution, plastics and fracking. This is because the UK will no longer be held accountable by EU laws that safeguard the environment.

By campaigning around Brexit we are seeking to guarantee that the EU’s wide-ranging environmental laws don’t get left behind after exit day. If they are, this would threaten the natural environment on which we all rely for our health, food, commodities and existence. But if we create our own versions of these laws, then the government could be held accountable in the future.

We’re also working on Brexit as it’s an excellent opportunity to push the UK to become a green leader and to go beyond EU standards, once those have been secured. We know that the decisions the government makes now will affect the environment for years to come – including making it easier or harder for future governments to weaken our environmental protections.

We’re campaigning on Brexit to take advantage of the opportunity to push the UK’s ambition. We want to set the bar as high as possible and make sure environmental protections can’t be undone in the future.

Right now the government is writing its new policy for farming after Brexit. We're making the most of this opportunity to improve our environmental protections and campaigning to make sure pesticide reduction is at the heart of farming in the UK.

Won’t Brexit let us take back control and strengthen environmental laws?

Brexit could give us an opportunity to strengthen the UK’s environmental laws. But first we have to make sure current protections aren't left behind as we leave the EU.

It’s crucial that we safeguard our environmental laws now, so we have strong foundations to improve them in the future. If we don’t, environmental protections could be overturned by future governments instead of being made stronger.

Brexit doesn’t have to weaken the UK’s standards, but it could. So we have been working to make sure the government doesn't make mistakes that prevent laws from working properly when they're transferred. We also need to put pressure on the government in case it tries to discontinues certain laws - and we'll encourage improvement of environmental laws where possible.

Although Brexit could be an excellent opportunity for the UK to be a green leader, the UK has a patchy record with environmental policy. Successive UK governments have:

  • Tried to block EU rules limiting climate change-causing tar sand imports.
  • Pushed to weaken EU habitat laws.
  • Voted for an EU renewal of toxic weed killer glyphosate.
  • Tried to water down the EU energy efficiency directive.
  • Successfully blocked the adoption of binding national renewable targets for 2030.

We need to use this opportunity to push for positive changes to environmental policy when replacing EU laws post-Brexit.

We’ve been calling for a strong Environment Bill to show that the government is serious about helping nature thrive and improving our climate. But if the UK leaves Europe without a deal, environmental protections like this could end up at the back of the governments to-do list as it scrambles to keep the country running. There also wouldn’t be enough time for the government to make sure EU protections continue to work properly – making it easier to overlook the environment post-Brexit.

What makes EU laws so good for the environment anyway?

While the EU may not be perfect, it’s given us laws that have largely benefited the UK’s environment. Brexit may give us the opportunity to improve on EU environmental protections, but we need strong foundations to do so.

There’s a risk that some of those EU laws may fall through the gaps. This would leave us with patchy environmental protections and weak foundations on which to build our improvements.

The EU Withdrawal Act sets out how the UK will operate post-Brexit. It doesn’t fully guarantee that environmental standards won’t fall after we leave the EU – despite government promises.

Friends of the Earth is pushing the government to fix the gaps that would leave our health and environment vulnerable to abuse. Gaps like not being properly protected against the use of untested chemicals and not having an environmental watchdog to punish polluters. But a no-deal Brexit could put the environment at the bottom of the government’s priorities and wouldn’t give it enough time to properly address issues like these.

At the very least, we need to maintain the standards we’ve signed up to in Europe. And to do that we need to make sure we don’t leave the EU without a deal. Only then is there the potential for the UK to strengthen its laws where the EU’s aren’t good enough.

We’re not advocating for a certain kind of Brexit. We’re working to make sure whatever happens, our environment gets better not worse. We’re scrutinising all the laws needed to safeguard our agriculture, fish and environment, to make sure all current protections are retained on exit day, and to push for higher standards. And we’re also campaigning to make sure we don’t end up with a dirty no-deal Brexit.

This is especially important as 83% of the British public believe we should keep these EU protections. Our work represents the voice of the public, including those who voted Leave in the referendum.

Aren’t the real Brexit issues the economy, housing and immigration?

Brexit will affect many different aspects of our society, from the economy to immigration to housing. Of course the government has a responsibility to address issues like these. But it also has a responsibility to maintain a healthy environment for its population, the rest of the planet, and for generations to come. This is crucial given the huge threat that environmental issues like the climate emergency present to both nature and society.

Without strong environmental protections there would be costly impacts for our economy, health, and public services.

For example, we wouldn’t have restrictions on antibiotic use in farming which protect humans from antibiotic-resistant bacteria and diseases; nor limits on air pollution which reduce healthcare costs; nor guidelines on pesticides to ensure we’re not exposed to dangerous chemicals.

If our environment suffers, so could nature-based tourism such as bird watching, hiking and mountain biking – a big driver for the UK’s economy. Migration could also increase if we don’t have strong targets for reducing climate change-causing emissions. Global climate change will force more and more people to leave their homes, worsening the world’s refugee crisis.

Environmental issues are often viewed in isolation, but they have impacts across society. That’s why it’s vital to focus on protecting our environment – not just for the planet but for the people that depend on it.

Without a thriving natural environment it won’t matter how strong our economy is. The environment can survive without us, but we can’t survive without it.

Other FAQs

How will Brexit affect bees, wildlife and nature?

How will Brexit affect air pollution?

How will Brexit affect fracking in the UK?

How will Brexit affect our food and farming?

How will post-Brexit trade deals affect the environment?