Environmental Consequences of the Brexit

By Natalie Himmel, University of Iowa


Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has electrified the interest of policy makers, leaders, and investors as the consequences of the vote unfold. As a result of the vote, many internal and external implications may arise, including environmental concerns that put Britain at risk for weakened environmental standards and a stifled voice in international environmental law.



Britain’s history with the environment is strung with failures and triumphs. Although the study of animal and plant species in Britain has had centuries of established academic research, “conservation” as we know it today did not become a public or political concern until after the Second World War. In 1950 Britain’s production of coal was at a peak, and so was its pollution. This unchecked production provoked environmental and human health disasters, such as The Great Smog of 1952 and the proliferation of poor water quality, particularly of Britain’s drinking and beach waters.

The critical turning point for Britain and the environment took place when it became part of the European Union in 1972. By the 1980s, Britain’s domestic policies reflected pollution limits and regulations set by the EU, and the environment became an essential component of Britain’s legislative sphere. The European Union has been championed for its environmental policies and has had significant influence on international environmental law. As a result of the EU’s influence, Britain has cleaner air, water, and oceans and has pioneered green market systems. Because transnational environmental policy often has greater funding and accountability than national policy, EU policies tend to be long-lasting with a greater sense of security. Additionally, green markets in Britain were less subject to economic risk as part of an economic union because its system discourages lowering environmental standards in order to undercut competition for short-term gains.


Britain in turn has held much influence on the EU in strengthening climate and energy policies. Its leaders have pushed other EU members to be more ambitious on international climate mitigation objectives, and have long encouraged fuel-efficiency research and implementation. In 2002, Britain established the mechanics for the world’s first carbon trading scheme and recently organized an advisory body on government carbon budgets called the Committee on Climate Change. British environmentalists have sparked healthy criticism of EU agricultural and fishery policies in favor of more progressive and sustainable regulation. Essentially, Britain has both helped and been helped by the European Union in terms of environmental policy, but this vital reciprocity is likely to experience changes due to the referendum.


On July 13th Theresa May took office as the country’s new Prime Minister and thus is now responsible for invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, officially beginning Britain’s separation from the EU. Until Article 50 is invoked, and agreements for the arrangement of Britain’s withdrawal are concluded, it is important to note the uncertainty in making definitive statements about the environmental consequences of Britain leaving the EU. This is partially due to the choice Britain has in either remaining in the European Economic Area (EEA), as Norway and Iceland do, or positioning itself completely outside the EU and its primary agreements.


If Britain chooses to stay in the EEA, European Union environmental laws will continue to apply—excluding those protecting wildlife and bathing waters. However, Britain will no longer hold influence, formal negotiations, nor a vote for the amendment of an existing EU environmental policy or creation of a new one. It seems unlikely that Great Britain, as a powerhouse of Europe, would well accept compliance with legislation in which they have neither voice nor vote.


If Britain severs its adherence to EU policies, no environmental legislation from the EU would hold Britain to anything but export standards. Britain then would have the initiative to weaken environmental laws, strengthen them, or maintain existing laws and policies, making new judgment calls on environmental standards across Britain. This would undoubtedly be a lengthy and laborious process, and Britain risks entering a vacuum in which it discards existing environmental laws and regulations before new ones can be planned and implemented. In addition, past attempts by political conservatives to weaken environmental policies puts Britain at risk for regression in domestic environmental protection and standards more than ever—especially in the case of an economic dip as a result of the referendum.


In light of the Brexit, Britain plays an important role in the environmental future of Europe. Without the European Union, however, Britain’s environmental consciousness is clouded by either frustration and lack of participation, or risk and uncertainty. Without the European Union, Britain may cease to see growth and investment for greener businesses, and consistent standards for the protection of their wildlife and public areas may be watered down. Without the European Union, Britain cannot push for better Agricultural and Fishery policies for Europe nor influence international rules and regulations protecting the environment at the same level.


The consequences of climate change and environmental destruction know no political borders, and Britain’s close cooperation with the EU and the international arena is essential. Environmental health and protection were not key issues going into Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, but the consequences of the vote may significantly reveal the inseverable link between environmental issues and economic, social, and political wellness.

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