The EU has ensured that the UK, along with the rest of Europe, has cleaner environments, greater protection for wildlife and ambitious greenhouse gas targets. However, now that the UK has voted to leave the European Union, charities such as the WWF, RSPB and Wildlife Trusts are asking many questions – many of which are hard to answer, especially around energy targets, wildlife conservation, recycling, clean air policy and agriculture.
Green energy targets
Under the EU Renewable Energy Directive, the UK is required to generate 30% of its electricity and 12% of its heating energy from renewable sources, as well as 10% of energy in the transport sector to come from renewable sources. So far, this is the main reason the government backed the rapid growth of wind and solar farms, which drove UK electricity from renewable sources to 19% in 2014. While Brexit may not put an end to that, as the UK already has its own unilateral Climate Change Act, the future of the environment in the UK is conditional on future government policies.
Just like other EU members, the UK is expected to meet the target of recycling 50% of its household waste by 2020, and 65% by 2030. In Wales and Scotland any changes to legislation after leaving the EU would have little effect as the countries have already set themselves more challenging targets, yet it England exiting the EU could give politicians flexibility to set more lax targets. In a world where resources are under ever-increasing pressure, this flexibility could have harmful environmental effects.
Clean air has recently been at the forefront of the media, with several areas of the UK – and London in particular – facing illegal levels of noxious gases, particularly nitrogen dioxide. EU laws have set the benchmark against which the public can put pressure on the government to curb emissions, and Brexit could pave the way for the UK to repeal laws around clean air. This would be an issue of great concern for the UK public, and would pave the way to what many consider to be a ‘public health crisis’.
The EU’s cornerstone, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), rewards farmers for particular types of land use and tending to wild grassland, amongst other benefits such as subsidies. In 2015 UK farmers received around £2.4Bn in direct payments from the CAP scheme, accounting for a staggering 55% of the total income in the farming sector. What happens to the farming sector once the UK officially leaves the EU is mostly unknown, and is something farmers have repeatedly been asking about.
Another aspect affecting agriculture is the use of pesticides – especially neonicotinoids, which have been at the forefront of agricultural media coverage over the past years. The future of these bee-harming pesticides remains is in the hands of future UK policy regarding them, and could be undermined by the UK leaving the EU.
Wildlife conservation is at the mercy of most other environmental issues, heavily affected by agricultural policy, urban expansion and air quality. Many of the laws that protect the UK’s wildlife and environment are tied to the UK’s EU membership, and could be affected if the UK leaves the EU, again depending on future potential policy changes. However, this is something the public can campaign for, especially with the help of public figures such as David Attenborough.
As with many Brexit-related issues, be it the economy, social policy, politics or the environment, uncertainty is the overarching theme, we are more likely to see the number of environmental policies dwindling. Emissions targets may change, recycling policies may become laxer and wildlife conservation may continue to suffer.