Environmental policy has hardly been mentioned in the public debate on EU Membership so far, which is quite surprising as about 90 per cent of the UK’s environmental legislation comes from EU legislation. The EU has had a huge impact on the development of environmental policy and law in the UK over the past 40 years and has undoubtedly had a positive effect in making us clean up our act in areas like air pollution, water pollution and waste management, although some EU environmental laws have been criticised as burdensome red tape by some business sectors.
It is very difficult to predict what environmental law and policy in the UK might look like following any EU exit, but here are two possibilities. Firstly, within the UK itself, environmental policy is devolved to the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and we are already starting to see policies diverging between the different parts of the UK, with Scotland and Wales generally setting more ambitious environmental goals than England and Northern Ireland. Currently, that happens within the framework provided by EU environmental law, but without that framework, it is possible that policies in different parts of the UK could diverge even further which could make compliance more difficult for businesses operating in more than one part of the UK.
A second possibility however is that leaving the EU would actually have little impact on environmental law and policy in the UK and there are two reasons for that. The first reason is that if UK businesses wanted to trade with the EU, any goods exported to the EU would still have to comply with EU environmental standards. And if the UK joined the EEA or EFTA, we would still have to sign up to most of the EU’s environmental laws, because those laws also affect the functioning of the single market.
The second reason is that a lot of EU environmental legislation implements international treaty commitments which the UK has signed up to in its own right on matters ranging from climate change to cross border movements of waste. So even if we weren’t in the EU, we would still have to honour those international commitments.