INSIGHT 29 June 2016
Green lining? Five ways Brexit could be good for the environment
By Michael Le Page
Brexit may be bad in many ways, but here’s a very faint glimmer of a silver lining. If the UK leaves the European Union, it might not necessarily be a disaster for the environment.
Anyone in the country who feels strongly about air pollution or carbon emissions is likely to have voted to remain in the EU. The general consensus before the vote was that if the UK left, it would be bad news for the environment.
And so it could be. But don’t despair just yet — there are five ways it might actually benefit the environment.
1. The UK wouldn’t be able to water down EU laws anymore
The biggest worry for environmentalists is that, on leaving the EU, the UK will rip up a host of laws covering everything from air pollution and wildlife conservation to recycling. Three such laws, including a directive that bans the dumping of raw sewage into waters where people swim, will definitely be lost if the UK invokes article 50.
But plenty of British MPs and businesses want the UK to remain in the single market.
If the UK had a new arrangement like Norway’s, it would still be bound by almost all EU laws, but would no longer have any say in them.
This might sound like a bad thing, but in recent years, the UK has blocked or watered down many EU environmental regulations. For instance, David Cameron blocked an attempt to introduce rules to stop frackers polluting the environment or triggering too many earthquakes. Future EU environment laws may be stronger if the UK has no say.
2. Scrapping the CAP could benefit wildlife
Nearly half the EU’s budget is spent on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which sees £3.5 billion go to landowners in the UK every year. To qualify for this subsidy, land doesn’t actually have to be farmed – it just has to be kept bare, as if ready for planting or grazing.
3. The failing carbon trading scheme could be fixed
The pound isn’t the only thing whose value is falling. The cost of polluting our atmosphere with carbon dioxide also plummeted after the Brexit vote.
4. The UK could reap the benefits of gene editing
5. Climate action will still continue
The process of ratifying the Paris climate agreement just got more complicated, because the EU signed up on behalf of all its members. Some renegotiation will be needed if the UK goes it alone rather than remaining part of the EU bloc.
But what matters more than formal ratification is that countries continue to cut emissions. The UK has already committed to cutting emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 under the 2008 Climate Act, which has nothing to do with the EU. While the UK has reversed a whole series of green initiatives over the past year, it still legally has to meet a set of interim targets as part of the climate act.
Last but not least, there are fears that the Brexit referendum result could lead to a global economic downturn. This would lead to lower carbon emissions, just as the a 2008 financial crisis did. Okay, it’s not exactly the most desirable way for reducing emissions, but we’re trying hard to look on the bright side.
A shorter version of this article was published in New Scientist magazine on 9 July 2016