Brexit spells trouble for environmental protections

28th Apr 2017

As Britain scrambles to eke out trade deals with economic powerhouses following the delivery of Article 50 last month, marking the beginning of the two-year negotiating process for the UK to leave the European Union, it looks as though environmental regulations are on the chopping block. In the months since Brexit was voted on, the pound has devalued, and the EU has hinted at making an example out of the UK to deter other nations from following suit.

On April 8, a document leaked to the Daily Mail by a bystander on a train showed that focus was to be taken away from endangered species and climate change, and put towards securing trade deals. The document belonged to an official of Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade, preparing to brief diplomats on Brexit negotiations. According to the document, “‘economic security-related work like climate change and illegal wildlife trade will be scaled down’, with only ‘some’ diplomatic posts still expected to carry out such work.” Environmentalists were up in arms at the news, prompting a reaction by Prime Minister, Theresa May, ensuring that Britain’s commitment to a clean energy future is as strong as ever.

Yet, some question Britain’s financial ability to do this, as the UK has received billions in funding for various environmental and climate mitigation projects. The future of things such as European Investment Bank loans of €6 billion meant to fund clean energy infrastructure, flooding, and river pollution, are unknown. Part of the argument to leave the EU was how much money the UK contributed versus how much it actually received, but according to DeSmogUK, “it appears that since 2000 the UK has received around £40 billion from the European Union in funding and loans which have been put towards various energy projects, smart meters, and scientific research. The UK has also received an annual £52 million towards the world’s largest nuclear fusion project.” It is difficult to tell whether that type of funding can be maintained without the help of the bloc.

As both the UK and the EU struggle to find their footing in uncharted territory, breaking ties after decades of interdependent decision-making, the fate of commitments such as the Paris Climate Agreement, hang in the balance. The EU, as well as individual nations, ratified the agreement; yet the commitments submitted by European countries were based on the assumption that funding for projects to meet targets would be shared between nations within the bloc. May has given mixed signals on climate; soon after taking office she abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but then ratified the Paris Agreement, feeling political pressure after the US and China did so jointly.

It is easy to see why the UK would be willing to smooth over points of contention on certain environmental regulations in order to secure viability within the global marketplace, but an easing of such regulations could easy turn into a domino effect. The UK is a large emitter of greenhouse gases, and its colonial past has contributed to the major environmental destruction around the world. According to the Independent, the UK is responsible for more endangered species around the world than any other nation.

Even before the documents were leaked, it was known that the protection of some endangered species within the UK’s Overseas Territories (UKOTs) will be in peril. Once the UK leaves the bloc, they are not eligible to apply for grants such as the Best 2.0 scheme, a European Commission flagship project aimed at protecting biodiversity that is set to run until December 2019. Without that funding, protected species such as the sea whale and Macaroni penguin will be left to fend for themselves.

It is understandable that the UK is rethinking its priorities, as the image of its future is unknown. Yet, as many world powers try to get serious about climate change and protecting the world’s fragile ecosystems, it is important that all emitters get on board and do their part. The European Union is not a perfect entity, but it had the power to hold its member states accountable in terms of environmental standards and monitoring. The UK is navigating uncharted territory, but it should do all it can to keep its promises regarding environmental protection, for it does not want to be the first domino that tumbles the world to an even more dire climate crisis.

Sarah Sakeena Marshall, B.S. Environmental Science & Policy

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