Brexit means Brexit. But what does that mean for environmental policy?

Camping above a wild and pristine beach in a remote corner of north-west Scotland on 24 June, one of my companions received a text from a friend – had he voted, had he heard the news? I didn’t know Big Brother was still running, was the flippant reply, was someone evicted? But looking out over a landscape which is arguably one of the UK’s greatest environmental assets, dark clouds were gathering.

Scotland

Whatever one thinks of Theresa May, her swift move into No.10 will at least mean a degree of stability is regained as the UK and EU continues to reel in the wake of the EU referendum, the result of which is just one issue among many that the new Prime Minister has inherited from Cameron.

In her leadership bid, May stated emphatically: Brexit means Brexit. It would appear to be a clear statement, one which leaves little doubt about her stance on the matter. The problem is that actually it leaves all the key questions unanswered, and when it comes to the environment, it is far from clear how the UK will deal with issues such as EU subsidies for farmers, air pollution or any number of other controversial matters. What is clear, is that for the immediate future, it appears the general direction in terms of environmental policy will be much the same as before.

Yet May’s record on environmental matters is mixed and the long term consequences of Brexit for the environment remain equally opaque. Often voting against measures to prevent climate change, May also voted against regulations to prevent fracking and in favour of the plan to sell state-owned forests.

Considering such contentious issues as renewable energy and wind farms, it is unlikely Brexit or Theresa May’s succession will make any real-world difference. While less challenging routes may be possible in some areas such as transport policies, when considering renewable energy, the long lead times associated with wind farms in particular, mean that the majority of installations required to hit the 30% (of total UK electricity generation) target by 2020, have already secured planning permission and the associated subsidies. It is expected that the cost of these subsidies will top £9 billion by then – paid for by the consumer via their energy bills.

Sat above my beach, I thought of the seas before me. It is a fact that Britain’s seas are now cleaner by far than they were a decade ago, largely thanks to the EU push on water pollution and similar EU directives exist to protect endangered habitats and species as well as tackling air quality for instance. Now while the laws which have been adopted by the UK in this area would still apply, Brexit means parliament now has the freedom to change or tailor them as they see fit. Resisting EU guidelines is not necessarily a bad thing in all instances, but the UK’s historical resistance to environmental guidelines from the EU and its continued watering down of these same guidelines does not bode well.

So what does Brexit mean? At this juncture, it remains anything but certain, but as the EU will no longer have any role in the enforcement of environmental regulations, it is a worrying prospect. But then every cloud has a silver lining and as public environmental consciousness grows, it is possible that greater pressure will be brought to bear upon the new Prime Minister and moves which threaten environmental safeguards will be seen as too politically sensitive to enact. Time will tell.

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