photo of beech and other trees in autumn

Brexit’s impact on nature: why we’re involved

Why is Friends of the Earth campaigning around Brexit? What effect will Brexit have on the UK environment? What will it mean for nature? Our answers.
  06 Apr 2018    |      9 min

How will Brexit affect the UK environment?

Over 80% of the UK’s environmental laws come from the European Union (EU).

Brexit's main environmental risk is the possibility that these EU protections might be lost or weakened if we’re outside the EU. Some laws might not be faithfully transferred, while others could be made easier to scrap in the future.

It’s not just our environmental laws that are at risk. The legal mechanisms to properly implement and enforce them also originate in the EU. This could leave us with gaps in our environmental protections and difficulties in enforcing our laws.

There will have to be new ways to hold the government to account. Otherwise, we might not be able to use our environmental laws to protect our wildlife and natural resources, even if the laws are faithfully transferred from Europe to the UK.

Won’t the UK government protect our environment?

The government’s unreliable track record makes it clear that we need to be able to hold it to account.

The EU has previously done this – for example, by giving the UK government multiple warnings for exceeding EU limits on air pollution. The campaign group Client Earth has used these limits to take the UK government to the European Court of Justice a number of times.

To continue protecting our health and the environment we must properly transfer EU laws and make sure they can be enforced after exit day.

By leaving the EU the UK could lose out on stronger environmental protections in the future.

In the past other European countries have called and voted for stronger protections which improved EU environmental standards. In effect, the green actions of other EU countries have improved our own environmental protections - something we won’t benefit from after exit day.

Greener UK is a coalition of environmental organisations working to protect the environment from risks associated with Brexit. It's monitoring how Brexit will impact the environment with its Brexit Risk Tracker.

Shouldn’t Friends of the Earth be campaigning on other things, not Brexit?

Most of the issues that Friends of the Earth does and could campaign on will be affected by Brexit – including our current work on bees, air pollution, plastics and fracking. This is because the UK will no longer be held accountable by EU laws that safeguard the environment.

By campaigning around Brexit we are seeking to guarantee that the EU’s wide-ranging environmental laws don’t get left behind after exit day. If they are, this would threaten the natural environment on which we all rely for our health, food, commodities and existence. But if we create our own versions of these laws, then the government could be held accountable in the future.

We’re also working on Brexit as it’s an excellent opportunity to push the UK to become a green leader and to go beyond EU standards, once those have been secured. We know that the decisions the government makes now will affect the environment for years to come – including making it easier or harder for future governments to weaken our environmental protections.

We’re campaigning on Brexit to take advantage of the opportunity to push the UK’s ambition. We want to set the bar as high as possible and make sure environmental protections can’t be undone in the future.

Right now the government is writing its new policy for farming after Brexit. We're making the most of this opportunity to improve our environmental protections and campaigning to make sure pesticide reduction is at the heart of farming in the UK.


Won’t Brexit let us take back control and strengthen environmental laws?

Brexit could give us an opportunity to strengthen the UK’s environmental laws. But first we have to make sure current protections aren't left behind as we leave the EU.

It’s crucial that we safeguard our environmental laws now, so we have strong foundations to improve them in the future. If we don’t, environmental protections could be overturned by future governments instead of being made stronger.

Brexit doesn’t have to weaken the UK’s standards, but we must keep watch in case the government makes mistakes when transferring certain laws. We also need to put pressure on the government in case it discontinues certain laws - and we'll encourage improvement of environmental laws where possible.

Although Brexit could be an excellent opportunity for the UK to be a green leader, the UK has a patchy record with environmental policy. Successive UK governments have:

  • Tried to block EU rules limiting climate change-causing tar sand imports.
  • Pushed to weaken EU habitat laws.
  • Voted for an EU renewal of toxic weed killer glyphosate.
  • Tried to water down the EU energy efficiency directive.
  • Successfully blocked the adoption of binding national renewable targets for 2030.

It’s clear we should use this opportunity to push for positive changes to environmental policy when taking back control of our laws.

What makes EU laws so good for the environment anyway?

While the EU may not be perfect, it’s given us laws that have largely benefited the UK’s environment. Brexit may give us the opportunity to improve on EU environmental protections, but we need strong foundations to do so.

There’s a risk that some of those EU laws may fall through the gaps. This would leave us with patchy environmental protections and weak foundations on which to build our improvements.

The EU Withdrawal Bill will determine how the UK will operate post-Brexit. At the moment it risks leaving the UK without adequate protections against the use of untested chemicals. It could also remove rules that punish those who pollute and require them to clean up environmental damage. Monitoring behaviour and enforcing laws to protect our natural areas could also be dropped.

We need these and other protections to be safeguarded by transferring certain EU laws. Only after that is there the potential for the UK to strengthen its laws. We’ll be working with MPs to make sure environmental laws are replaced with higher standards and protections where EU laws aren’t enough.

We’re not advocating for or against all EU law becoming UK law. We’re supporting changes to the Withdrawal Bill to make sure laws that currently support a thriving environment are retained on exit day, and not left behind.

This is especially important as 83% of the British public believe we should keep these EU protections. Our work represents the voice of the public, including those who voted Leave in the referendum.

Aren’t the real Brexit issues the economy, housing and immigration?

Brexit will affect many different aspects of our society, from the economy to immigration to housing. Of course the government has a responsibility to address issues like these. But it also has a responsibility to maintain a healthy environment for its population, the rest of the planet, and for generations to come. This is crucial given the huge threat that environmental issues like climate change present to both nature and society.

Without strong environmental protections there would be costly impacts to our economy, health, and public services.

For example, we wouldn’t have restrictions on antibiotic use in farming which protect humans from antibiotic-resistant bacteria and diseases; nor limits on air pollution which reduce healthcare costs; nor guidelines on pesticides to ensure we’re not exposed to dangerous chemicals.

If our environment suffers, so could nature-based tourism such as bird watching, hiking and mountain biking – a big driver for the UK’s economy. Migration could also increase if we don’t have strong targets for reducing climate change-causing emissions. Global climate change will force more and more people to leave their homes, worsening the world’s refugee crisis.

Environmental issues are often viewed in isolation, but they have impacts across society. That’s why it’s vital to focus on protecting our environment – not just for the planet but for the people that depend on it.

Without a thriving natural environment it won’t matter how strong our economy is. The environment can survive without us, but we can’t survive without it.

Other FAQs

How will Brexit affect bees, wildlife and nature?

How will Brexit affect air pollution?

How will Brexit affect fracking in the UK?

How will Brexit affect our food and farming?