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The UK has voted to leave the European Union. What does this mean for environmental protections in the UK?

The UK has voted to leave the European Union. This is a momentous state of world affairs that has already had a number of immediate and alarming knock on effects: leadership crisis for the major parties; economic markets in turmoil; increasing risks that the United Kingdom itself will break up; and uncertainty amongst the 3.3 million EU citizens living in the UK.

Amidst all of this, Brexit presents a really serious issue for environmental protections in the UK. 

Environmental organisations in Britain were generally in consensus that Brexit would be bad for the environment.  This is because most environmental laws in the UK are derived from the EU, and the EU has been successful in maintaining a relatively high standard of environmental protection that all member state countries must live up to. For example, the Birds and Habitats Directives are the main European laws protecting biodiversity and they have been the driving force for protecting and enhancing nature protection in the UK.  Following an exit from the EU, the UK parliament will have full discretion to change those laws.

The British environment is undoubtedly at greater risk by removing the standard setting and supervisory role that the EU provided to the UK. National politicians are now much more likely to prioritise short term economic gains over long term environmental protections.  This view is echoed by environmentalist Stanley Johnson, a Conservative party member who co-authored the Habitats Directive (and is incidentally also Boris Johnson’s father).

This all means uncertain times ahead for the UK environment and an even tougher task for the environmental organisations that are doing their best to protect it. 

So where to next?

Until such time that an exit deal is finalised with the EU, the UK will still be legally bound to EU laws. This could take up to two years. Environmental groups will need to urge the UK government to continue to enforce compliance with EU laws. At the same time, engaging a diverse sector of the UK population will be essential to ensure the UK Government prioritises the environment in the post-Brexit scenario.  

EJA lawyer Sarah Brugler has previously worked for the Biodiversity Programme at European legal organisation ClientEarth. She focused on the UK’s implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives.