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What does Brexit mean for the UK’s wildlife? | The World Weekly

Clutching bunches of wild flowers and dressed in black and yellow, campaigners gathered outside the European Commission in Brussels on April 27 as member states - including the UK - voted to ban the most widely used class of insecticide in the world, neonicotinoids. Campaigners hailed the decision as a “beacon of hope for bees.”

Neonicotinoids, a group of chemicals used to protect crops against a variety of pests, have been controversial for some time. But it was the recent release of a European Food Safety Authority study which concluded that the pesticides negatively impacted the ability of bees to forage and form colonies that finally caused the EU to act.

With more than three quarters of the leading types of global food crops relying to some extent on animal pollination, the stakes are high. 

Following Friday’s victory, environmental charities around the UK have been celebrating the government’s decision to back the EU’s neonicotinoid ban.

However, with the British vote soon to disappear from the EU’s ballot box, political analysts and environmentalists have been left wondering what state the UK’s environmental legislation will be left in after Brexit takes effect. 

Greener or greyer

Critics remain divided over whether Brexit will enable the UK to become a greener country. 

Many have argued that leaving the EU presents a unique opportunity to upgrade the UK’s environmental policy, and many NGOs see an opening for the government to remodel the agricultural industry around environmental preservation rather than productivity. 

British Environment Secretary Michael Gove has proposed plans for a ‘Green Brexit’, and UK charity Friends of the Earth has begun campaigning for the UK’s post-Brexit agriculture policy to reduce the sector’s reliance on pesticides. 

However, analysts worry about the potential for gaps to be left in environmental legislation, particularly if Britain leaves the EU without new treaties with Brussels in place. This ‘no deal’ scenario would leave the UK accountable only to international environmental treaties, which are typically less stringent than EU regulations. 

Furthermore, “zombie legislation” is a risk under any scenario, Will Nichols, senior environmental analyst from global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, told The World Weekly. This would see the UK transpose EU law into UK law, but potentially without an equivalent regulatory body to enforce it. 

“The hard truth is that after Brexit, the UK will be departing from several EU policies regarding the environment, whether we like it or not,” noted Darryl Cox, senior science and policy officer for the UK charity Bumblebee Conservation Trust. “One of the areas that is still unclear relates to the regulation and approval of chemicals like neonicotinoids.” 

Tim Lovett, past president of the British Beekeeping Association and current director of public affairs inspects the brood box of an opened hive at the Kingston Division Apiary of the Surrey Beekeepers Association. Beekeeping is one of the many esoteric industries that will be affected by Brexit, which will free the UK of EU regulations that affect many products, including Bees.

Currently, the UK is part of a pool of shared EU scientific cooperation and resources which deal with how chemicals are used. “This is one of the elements which doesn’t translate so easily under the great repeal bill,” Mr. Cox added, “as the legislation involves the shared expertise of each EU member state and the most comprehensive database of chemical use in the world. It would therefore be impossible for the UK to have the same standard of chemical regulation.”

This is a global problem – if a pesticide is not safe for bees in the EU it is not safe for bees anywhere. - Sandra Bell, Friends of the Earth Campaigner

Critics have also called into question the UK’s fundamental commitment to maintaining strong environmental policy. “Brexit-supporting politicians have a deeply worrying record when it comes to legislation protecting the environment,” Barney Pell Scholes, policy and press officer for Open Britain, a charity campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU, told TWW. “For example, the environment secretary, Michael Gove, for all his warm rhetoric about a ‘Green Brexit’, has previously said that Brexit will be an opportunity to slash EU regulations protecting the environment.” 

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has yet to mention climate change in any official speech since taking office in July 2016, and over that time has trimmed the number of full-time Foreign Office officials dedicated to climate change by 25%, according to data from Verisk Maplecroft.

Slashing red tape?

Some critics regard EU environmental policies such as the Habitats Directive, which affords protection to over 1,000 species by securing certain habitats against development, as needless red tape which harms economic growth. 

Despite praise from environmentalists for some of his more progressive measures, Mr. Gove has been criticised for his aversion to implementing environmental legislation that could harm economic growth. In March 2017, he came under fire for branding the Habitats Directive “absurd,” arguing that it “massively increases the cost and the regulatory burden for housing development”.

“I am very, very keen – I may be odd in this respect as a Conservative MP – on having more homes built in my constituency,” Mr. Gove told an audience in March 2017. “It’s a social and economic good. But homes built in my constituency are governed by the Habitats Directive.” 

Outside of the EU, Eurosceptics argue, the UK could choose to leave the Habitats Directive. However, many observers have noted that this could be an unpopular decision, with polling indicating that the majority of the public wants post-Brexit laws protecting wildlife to be at least as strong as current EU legislation. 

Other legislative possibilities presented by Brexit have proven more popular with environmentalists. For instance, many see the opportunity to leave the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as a chance to implement stronger environmental protections. The policy provides subsidies for the 22 million farmers and agricultural workers inside the EU, and works to improve the agricultural industry by promoting research and preserving ecosystems related to agriculture. It has come under fire for promoting farming practices which damage the environment, and for benefitting large landowners at the expense of smaller, independent producers. 

“The Common Agricultural Policy’s extravagant payments to wealthy landowners have facilitated a system in which subsidies are paid not for the quality of land-management, but for the acreage of the farmer’s property,” Jayne K Adye, director of the Brexit Campaign Get Britain Out, told TWW. “By disentangling subsidies from the amount of land owned, the UK can reinvigorate British farming and promote a more environmentally sustainable approach to the treatment of land.”

There has also been discussion of a new independent regulatory body, which would serve to hold the government to account on environmental matters in place of the EU. “We now have the opportunity to improve the effectiveness of environmental law in the UK by setting up a new watchdog,” said Tom West, law and policy advisor for environmental law organisation ClientEarth. “This will let us amplify the voices of people and nature, shine a light on poor implementation of the law, and empower the public and courts to respond meaningfully to illegal action or inaction.”

Analysts argue that the future of the UK’s environmental regulation essentially hinges on whether the UK remains in the single market. If the UK does remain in the single market, there would be little change to current environmental protections: the UK would likely remain subject to future EU laws and regulators, unless an opt-out is negotiated as part of a bilateral deal, Mr. Nichols told TWW. However, if single market access is lost, the UK will have a greater opportunity to alter regulations in order to attract foreign investment, a prospect many environmentalists fear.

The final deal is yet to be decided. However, on April 30 the House of Lords voted for an amendment that many believe would effectively prevent the UK leaving the EU without a deal if Parliament rejects the negotiated terms. This amendment is still waiting to be approved by MPs, meaning a ‘no deal’ Brexit remains a slim possibility. 

Until plans are finalised, the welfare of the UK’s environment hangs in the balance. Conservationists around the country face an anxious wait.

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