Earth & Conservation

Will Brexit Hurt the Environment?

Some have feared the UK's eventual departure from EU will hinder fight against climate change. But a month later, environmental activists say impacts aren't yet clear

It's been a little more than a month since the U.K. voters opted by a narrow margin to support leaving the European Union, a move that led to the resignation of Prime Minister David Cameron and the ascension of a new leader, Theresa May. And although that nation's government has yet to actually evoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and start the process of departing from the EU, many already are worrying that the pullout will hurt the environment, by hindering European efforts to fight climate change, clean up polluted waterways, and reduce the use of pesticides that may be killing off bees and other pollinators.

The most strident alarm may have been sounded by the Guardian, the U.K.'s left-leaning newspaper, which called the vote a "red alert" for the environment, and warned that the "Leave" movement saw environmental regulations as part of the burdensome EU red tape that it wanted to slash. The paper pointed out that European regulators had pushed the U.K .to clean up air pollution that kills an estimated 40,000 people a year, and sewage contaminating the nation's beaches, and that many of the U.K.'s protections for wildlife stem from European rules.

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On the other side of the Atlantic, the Washington Post warned that the Brexit might hinder Europe from achieving its pledge to cut carbon emissions by 40 percent, as part of the fight against climate change.

But two European environmental activists tell Discovery News that the effects of the Britain's eventual departure are difficult to predict, and may not be as disastrous as some have envisioned.

Lady Bryony Worthington, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund Europe, said that the impact of Brexit could be "both good and bad," because of the UK's inconsistent stance on environmental regulation, in which it was head of the curve on some issues but resistant to change on others.

When it comes to climate change, for example, Worthington points out the UK actually started moving to limit carbon emissions before the EU, with its passage of the 2008 Climate Change Act. A few days after Brexit's passage, she notes, the U.K. government announced a new goal of reducing the country's emissions by 57 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

"It's unclear, she said, whether Britain will continue to participate in the European carbon market, which seeks to reduce emission by awarding limited credits and allowing nations to trade unused ones. "It would make sense for the U.K. to continue to be linked to the EU" in that regard, she said.

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But Worthington notes that the U.K. has resisted European efforts to improve air quality. Brexit might mean that the the country's own air will become less breathable -- while Europe may actually be free to impose stricter pollution controls.

But environmentalists also are worried that Brexit will weaken European efforts to improve energy efficiency, a big part of meeting the continent's goal of cutting its carbon emissions significantly by 2030. They fear the UK's willingness to walk-away could embolden other countries, such as Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, to insist that efficiency regulations are too burdensome to their less-advanced economies.

"Some in the (European) Commission are saying that the last thing we want to do is give more ammunition to countries who have a lot of Euroskeptics," said Brook Riley, an official with the Climate and Energy Program for Friends of the Earth Europe.

Riley said that the biggest effect of Brexit may be to give a wake-up call to European environmental activists. "The thing that Brexit reveals is that the EU is getting more disconnected from the guy in the street," he said. That makes it important to do a better job of communicating how environmental policy can benefit people, and not just the larger planet.

"For example, there are a lot of good studies showing the benefits of energy efficiency," Riley said, "lower utility bills, reduced need to import oil and gas from Russia. We should be emphasizing these points -- that we're doing it because it can have a significant, positive impact on everyone's lives."