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How will Brexit affect the environment?

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How will Brexit affect the environment?

The UK left the EU this past Friday, and so began the transition period that will last until 31 December, 2020. That date is non-negotiable, so the UK has only those 11 months to negotiate and then finalise everything. Part of that means the UK will remove itself from its current environmental obligations enforced by EU laws, which includes a lot of wildlife and habitat protection, as well as standards for pollution and hazardous chemicals.

Although we won’t know the full impact of Brexit on the environment and climate change until it actually happens at the end of this year, it is clear that there will be consequences. Read on to learn more about how Brexit will affect the UK’s ecosystems and natural resources.


Until the EU implemented their Bathing Water Directive in 1976, untreated sewage was pumped directly into oceans. The legislation set by the EU made a huge difference to the cleanliness of the UK’s coastline, and now, almost 600 beaches in the UK meet those clean water standards. Prior to the Bathing Water Directive, not even one beach met those cleanliness standards. Now, as the UK reaches the point where they are no longer held to those standards, it is unclear what internal legislation will be implemented to continue protecting the water that surround the country.


According to a joint report from the Wildlife Trust, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the WWF, several species are at risk thanks to gaps in environmental protection that will happen now that the UK has left the EU. The regulations being left behind include preventing hedgerow cutting during nesting season, limiting pesticide spraying, safeguarding ponds and protecting soil. A bill debated on Monday that is meant to displace those regulations has no domestic laws to replace them. The three wildlife charities involved in the report want the Office for Environmental Protection to be granted the ability to both police and implement new regulations. If this isn’t done, hedgehogs, dragonflies, and most importantly, bees could all lose their habitats in the UK.


Since the late ’70s, air pollution has been a leading driver for the EU’s environmental policy. Every EU member state has seen a decline in air pollution over the past 50 years because of that, but the UK is still breaching their nitrogen dioxide limits. In light of that, the UK was taken to the European Court of Justice before the UK’s Supreme Court ordered a new air quality plan to help keep the country in line with the NO2 limits. But, now that the UK is outside of the EI, it will no longer be obligatory to update those policies. Right now, air pollution cost the NHS £20 billion a year, and it’s the fourth leading cause of death. In the coming years, air pollution is predicted to become the number one cause of premature death in urban centres. At this point, it is unclear what the UK will do to protect air quality following Brexit, but leaving the EU’s effective and rigorous targets will likely have an impact on pollution.


An important international agreement that helps control waste in Europe is the Basel Convention, which controls the transboundary movements of hazardous waste. Along with that agreement, which the UK ratified, the EU has a variety of other regulations that cover non-hazardous waste as well. During the current Brexit transition period, these regulations will roll over into UK law, but as the government works towards separating, they are free to amend the national law and focus solely on the Basel Convention. More of that non-hazardous waste could end up in landfills as a result, without the option to continue exporting it to EU facilities.

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Written by - Tara MacInnis

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