Is Brexit a Catastrophe For The Environment? It Could Be.

Brexit is still somewhat of a mystery to us. Nobody really knows what’s going on, and whether there are good times ahead, or some doom and gloom. What we do know is that there are going to be repercussions for the environment, and so this thought piece will look at what we can hope to gain, prepare to lose, or should start putting thought to.

Will waste change?

Well, according to the Chartered Institute of Waste Management, it almost certainly will, of course. They explain the changes in three layers:

  • Layer one - General economic and political
  • Layer two - Legal and policy - general, environmental, product laws
  • Later three - Legal and policy - resource and waste laws

In layer one, things like the pound losing value has affected import and export markets and will continue to cause a disruption. Of course, leaving the EU will result in major trade terms changing, the details of which we don’t know yet. The availability of skilled or unskilled labourers from the EU might make things difficult, causing rising costs for the waste industry, meaning changes will have to be made to the way in which things are run, perhaps with more automation and fewer jobs being created. To compound all of this, foreign direct investment will likely suffer, as well as EU funding for projects and social enterprises.

If you’re interested in the legal side of things, this document from CIWM should clear things up.

What legislation will change? Can some things stay the same?

As an EU member, the UK doesn’t have any tariffs on waste trades, and no border checks too, but after Brexit, this is likely to change, although not significantly according to Resources Minister Therese Coffey. The barriers that can expect to be put up will be more checks and controls on waste being sent to EU countries, however, the EU knows that if that were to happen, the UK would likely increase its exports outside of the EU. This would not benefit the EU, as many members of the EU actually send waste to the UK, so nobody (except the environment) would prosper from introducing waste legislation that involved high tariffs, though low tariffs might be accepted.

For the members of the UK, legislation might change if we were no longer all uniformly corresponding to the same EU framework, but that’s on a knife edge. This would open up the opportunity for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to create their own waste policies, which might especially appeal to Wales who are ‘better’ at recycling and passing environmental policies than the other states. Right now, the UK is most likely preparing to dissolve the independent policy making powers, instead opting for the UK to continue following most of the EU framework, in order to keep things coordinated.

Who will we be held accountable to?

Democratic accountability is a global issue. What is to stop elected leaders misbehaving, if they believe that their actions are the will of the people? That’s a question for the millenia, but when it comes to Brexit and UK waste, the answer may be a little clearer. 

Maria Lee, professor of Law at UCL, has gone some way to answer this in her fascinating paper ‘Environmental Accountability After Brexit’. The following text is a perfect answer for everything this article asks.

With environmental governance profoundly shaped by EU legislation and policy for four decades, Brexit will have a significant impact on the UK environment. Even the very softest of Brexits will mean losing some environmental standards and exposing gaps in domestic governance. How then should the government be held to account for its environmental obligations post-Brexit – politically and legally? 

This article argues that relying exclusively on existing domestic mechanisms of accountability will not be sufficient. EU law routinely imposes a framework of planning and reporting obligations on Member States, makes a significant contribution to legal accountability in the UK courts, and has proven processes in place to set and develop environmental standards. Domestic mechanisms of judicial review and parliamentary scrutiny are not adequate in comparison. 

We need a new independent, expert and adequately resourced body to replace the EU’s role in scrutinising and enforcing government performance in environmental matters. It needs to be able to report publicly, and to parliaments and assemblies, on government’s statutory obligations to plan and report on environmental compliance; to compel ministerial responses; to undertake investigations in response to complaints or of its own motion; to demand remedial action; and to bring judicial review actions against government where appropriate. 

Developing a set of criteria against which environmental standards can be judged after Brexit should be another priority. The development of environmental standards should be subject to broad inclusion of a diverse range of interests, from industry to environmental groups, should take into account the latest scientific evidence and international and EU standards, and should be measures against established environmental principles such as the precautionary principle. 

With accountability at the heart of democratic government, it is paramount that our future environmental governance framework shall be considered and properly consulted on, and that it shall adequately address government accountability.

Heathrow Airport

Brexit has pretty much given the UK government the all clear for the third runway at Heathrow, which the EU was opposed to. Leaving the European Union clears three hurdles - EU air quality rules, EU planning laws, and the reduced opportunity to hold the government accountable, as explained above. This is bad news for the environment, and sets a dangerous precedent, even worse is that most of our MPs voted for it, showing a careless disregard for the environment in pursuit of the allurious ‘growth’.

What does the environment gain by opting out of Europe? 

That’s the question isn’t it. Right now, we don’t have an answer.