What does the Leave vote mean for Scotland's environment?

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 1 July 2016 in Comment

Why the Brexit vote has environmental campaigners worried

It’s natural attention focused on domestic matters after the Leave vote. With the pound collapsing, the Prime Minister resigning and Scotland returning to questions over independence, it felt like we had a decade’s worth of news in a day.

The UK left an international body and then immediately turned its attention inward, and who could blame us. But as things settle it will be necessary for the country to open the curtains and look outside, at the problems nation states cannot confront alone.

Environmental issues, almost without exception, are impossible to deal with at national level. Whether you are talking about climate change, clean water or migratory species, the natural world has very little respect for matters of sovereignty.


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And environmentalists are deeply worried by Brexit. As Richard Dixon, director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, put it on the morning of the result: “Many of the politicians backing the Leave vote are climate sceptics and against renewable energy, and much of the ‘red tape’ they complain about are the laws that have given us cleaner air and water, and forced companies to reduce pollution.”

He warned: “In the 1980s, our environmental record had us known as the ‘dirty man of Europe’. The fight is on to stop us slipping back to the bad old days.”

This feeling is widespread in the environment sector. So why are organisations across Scotland expressing concern, either privately or publicly, that the environment could be at risk following Brexit?

Firstly, the EU offers a vehicle for cooperation on these issues. It’s not the only one available – the UK will be able to foster international agreement through UN treaties – but agreements reached through other routes, crucially, will not be enforceable, leaving the regulation provided largely toothless. 

This point is critical. Take air pollution as an example. In 2014, with the UK regularly exceeding the EU’s legal limits, the European Commission launched legal action, forcing the UK to draw up plans to reduce dangerously high levels. Would the UK have been so concerned without the threat of massive fines brought by the case? It seems unlikely.

Secondly, organisations are deeply concerned over future funding, with Scotland currently receiving high levels of financial support from Europe for a range of initiatives. Leaving the EU would put this at risk.

In response, the Leave side will argue that this money came from the UK to begin with, and that following Brexit it will still exist – it will just come from either Westminster or Holyrood, instead of Brussels.

But that is by no means guaranteed. You only have to look at Nigel Farage’s attempts to immediately distance himself from claims that a Brexit would mean extra money for the NHS to see how uncertain the future will be. Post-exit it seems certain there will be calls to cut spending on ‘red tape’.

Meanwhile there are still questions over what power will end up where. The measures previously covered by EU environmental law should now be transferred to the Scottish Government. But energy is devolved, meaning the power the EU had to set renewables targets will be transferred to a UK Government which remains deeply sceptical of the industry.

Even in Scotland there are no guarantees environmental funding will not be diverted elsewhere, or used to form a tax cut. Just look at the cuts to Air Passenger Duty.

The one comfort for environmentalists will be the SNP’s stance on the EU. However the party plans to maintain EU membership, whether by staying in while the rest of the UK leaves or entering as an independent state, it will need to match the EU’s standards to be a member. In that context, losing environmental protection measures would be deeply unwise.

But then given how environmental issues transcend borders, that may offer little comfort.

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