9. Environment and climate change

Section contents


  • Most environmentalists, including Friends of the Earth and the Marine Conservation Society, agree that EU has had an overwhelmingly positive effect on environmental policy
  • ECJ and European Commission have played key roles in enforcing environmental standards in UK
  • After Brexit, UK’s environment will remain inextricably linked to the environment of Europe – it will be vital for UK and EU27 to continue to co-operate
  • Post-Brexit, UK would have no formal role in the development of EU standards, so UK would need to rely on informal influence
  • Many stakeholders are concerned that Brexit will diminish UK environmental protections and ambitions
  • UK’s on-going refusal to implement important air quality law suggests that, in the absence of external pressure, there will be a weakening of environmental policy

Click here for summary of Brexit FactBase.

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This section provides an overall view for the environment of EU membership and the main implications of Brexit. It then provides headline perspectives from Friends of the Earth and the Marine Conservation Society.

EU membership

The UK’s EU membership has had a fundamental impact on UK environmental legislation. UK climate change policy has also become increasingly enmeshed in EU policy.

EU environmental law includes areas such as nature and biodiversity, waste and recycling, air quality and chemicals regulation. The EU’s climate action measures include emissions trading, energy efficiency standards and support for low carbon technologies.

The UK has strong domestic climate-change legislation. Along with other Member States, the UK has ratified the Paris climate change agreement. However, EU law heavily influences UK environment policy.

EU institutions, in particular the European Commission and the ECJ, monitor and enforce the implementation of EU law. Both institutions have driven improvements to the UK’s environment, particularly through the threat of infraction proceedings.

Implications of Brexit

Ongoing links to EU

The UK may be leaving the EU, but the UK’s environment will remain inextricably linked to the environment of Europe. In many areas, such as species conservation or air and water quality, it will be vital for the UK and the EU to continue to co-operate. This is essential to protect the shared European environment, whether terrestrial, marine, or atmospheric.

Brexit provides an opportunity to amend or repeal existing laws. However, the environment and those seeking to preserve or invest in it, need long-term policy stability. Maintaining this stability will be crucial to ensure legal protections for the UK’s environment remain complete and effective.

Diminished protections

Many are concerned that Brexit will diminish environmental protections and ambitions. The mere act of transposing EU environmental law into domestic law will be complex and extensive.

The UK will need its own effective enforcement mechanisms to sanction non-compliance with environmental legal objectives. Governmental self-regulation post-Brexit is likely to be a poor substitute for the monitoring and enforcement provided by EU institutions.

To continue to trade freely with the EU, the UK will need to comply with, or mirror EU environmental standards (for example, in relation to chemical regulations.)  Post-Brexit, the UK will have no formal role in new EU standards, so the UK government will need to rely on informal influence.

Greener UK

Several environmental bodies are collaborating to monitor and manage the risk of Brexit. They have come together in “Greener UK”, tracking Brexit to make sure that environmental protections do not weaken or disappear. They are also using the catalyst of Brexit to recommend ways to improve and enhance the UK’s environment. For more details, please visit the Greener UK website.

Greener UK has created a ‘Brexit risk-tracker’ to flag the risks arising from Brexit in all the main areas of environmental protection (from ‘A to W’ – from air pollution to water) and the government’s track record. See Figure 9.1 for the top-level view, which is supported by much more detail.

Friends of the Earth is one of the 13 organisations that formed Greener UK. Other coalition members include: Campaign to Protect Rural England, National Trust, RSPB, Woodland Trust, and WWF.

The Marine Conservation Society is one of 29 organisations that share Greener UK’s goals and align their own activities with Greener UK where appropriate.

Friends of the Earth’s view


Current situation

Positive benefit of EU

In the field of environmental policy, the EU has had an overwhelmingly positive effect. Through EU membership the UK government has had to put in place a host of policies with strict, legally-binding targets. It also has to provide regular, publicly-available reports on its performance in meeting those targets. Targets include: reduced sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide air pollution, cleaner rivers, cleaner beaches and greater UK wildlife protection.

While far from perfect, EU membership has benefited the UK’s nature and environment. 28 countries joining to tackle shared challenges across the continent has led to healthier air, cleaner beaches and water, and more protection for animals, birds and their habitats.

In the 1970s the UK was known as the ‘dirty man of Europe’. Pollution from UK coal-fired power stations was causing acid rain. Forests across Europe withered.  EU action on air quality put an end to this.  As a result, sulphur dioxide emissions dropped by 94% by 2011. This prevented an estimated 46,000 premature deaths between 1990 and 2001.

EU protection of UK sites

The EU protects some of the UK’s best loved nature sites. These include places like Cannock Chase, Flamborough Head, Dartmoor and Snowdonia. Before European Nature Directives kicked in, we were losing 15% of our protected sites a year. Now it is down to 1%. In the 1970s we pumped untreated sewage straight into the sea. But EU laws, and the threat of fines, forced us to clean up our act. Now over 90% of our beaches are considered clean enough to bathe off.

Source: Friends of the Earth, Brexit and the environment – protecting what we have 


Implications of Brexit

The huge progress made in improving the UK environment could be lost without external pressure and checks from EU actors, particularly in the areas of habitats, birds and bathing water.

A total withdrawal from the EU suggests a much wider erosion of environmental policy. This risks significant environmental damage to the UK. Government ministers have frequently tried to weaken progressive environmental policy at the European level. In the UK, a glaring example is the government’s on-going refusal to implement important air quality law. These behaviours suggest that, in the absence of external pressure, UK environmental policy will weaken.

Friends of the Earth has signed up to the policy objectives of Greener UK and is campaigning for:

  • Environmental laws to stay as strong as, or stronger than, those in the rest of Europe;
  • UK to be an international leader on climate change;
  • Any farming or land subsidies to be based on public good, e.g. improving biodiversity or better flood protection;
  • UK to keep working with its European and international neighbours on joint environmental challenges.
Source: Friends of the Earth, Brexit and the environment – protecting what we have 


Marine Conservation Society view


Pre-Brexit situation

National boundaries are irrelevant to any form of pollution or marine wildlife. Therefore, we need supra-national governance, legal frameworks and cooperation to achieve shared environmental standards. EU membership has delivered substantial and largely effective conservation of the marine environment. Thanks to EU Directives:

  • We don’t spend British seaside holidays swimming in sewage due to water quality standards under the EU Bathing Water Directive;
  • The best bits of our seas are protected through designated special nature reserves, known as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) under the EU Habitats and Birds Directives;
  • Countries across the EU must work together to protect and improve the quality of the sea and all that it contains. This is achieved through adoption of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD); and
  • Commercial fisheries must not cause overfishing by 2020. Also, the discarding of commercial species must end by 2019. Both actions are due to the radically reformed Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

Civil society has additional and effective means to hold the UK Government to account on how well it looks after our environment. While we have some national marine legislation, notably the UK Marine & Coastal Access Act and Marine (Scotland) Act, these are primarily to fill gaps in EU law and do not replace it.

Implications of Brexit

The real crux with Brexit will be to maintain the momentum for healthy seas and sustainable fisheries. This is essential to help deliver UK ambitions for a productive, healthy marine environment that supports thriving coastal communities and a profitable fishing industry.

MCS input to government

The UK Government has stated that it wants our exit from the EU to be a “Green Brexit”. MCS laid out its views in a letter that it sent to Defra ministers following the publication of the Great Repeal Bill.

“For our seas this means achieving the Government’s vision for “clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas. As a global leader, we must remain committed to environmental laws befitting an advanced society in the 21st century and as an island nation we need to lead the way on marine management and sustainable fishing. Brexit offers us the opportunity to establish ourselves as world leaders in this area, building upon the positive trends we are currently seeing in UK waters.”
Source: Marine Conservation Society, Ministerial Briefing, July 2017


The MCS letter expands on these goals. MCS believes that to achieve this vision, the governments of the UK must, as a priority:

  • Ensure that all EU environmental laws become an enforceable part of the UK’s laws, including EU jurisprudence and EU law principles such as the precautionary principle, the polluter pays principle and the principle of prevention at source.
    • This needs to cover all laws critical for the management of our seas including the Bathing Waters Directive, the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, the Water Framework Directive, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive and the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives.
  • Limit the use of delegated legislation in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill 2017-2019 to ensure faithful conversion of EU laws into UK laws.
    • Make sure that the use of such powers is time limited and subject to parliamentary scrutiny, with all non-technical changes to be made by primary legislation.
  • Ensure that all EU-derived environmental laws are properly implemented and enforced, with new governance arrangements, not just judicial review, and that they can only be amended by primary legislation.
  • Ensure that relevant EU institutions that implement and enforce EU environmental rules are effectively replaced with UK institutions and that liaison on cross border issues is fostered.
  • Take a strategic UK approach, jointly developed and mutually agreed by all four administrations.
    • Provide a collaborative framework for co-ordinating marine and fisheries management in accordance with the current devolved settlement, with the aim of achieving Good Environmental Status in all UK seas.
Specific marine conservation actions

This means that the UK needs to:

  • Ensure new domestic fisheries laws deliver sustainable fisheries.
  • Complete an ecologically coherent network of well-managed marine protected areas (MPAs). Meet EU and international commitments. Build on the faithful conversion of (the entirety of) the Habitats & Wild Birds Directives into UK domestic laws.
  • Uphold and effectively implement into UK laws all our obligations under international environmental treaties so that they can be given effect in the laws of England & Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and are legally enforceable.
  • Continue to take action to reduce marine litter. Following on from the successful carrier bag charge we welcome plans to ban micro-beads. However,  this must cover all household, commercial and industrial products that have the potential to be washed down sewerage systems, not just personal care products. It should also cover pre-production plastic pellets known as ‘nurdles’.
  • Protect vulnerable deep sea ecosystems from damaging fishing practices. The deep-sea access regime is a world leading piece of legislation, designed to protect some of the most vulnerable and fragile ecosystems on the planet. The UK must carry this legislation forward and ensure that we continue to lead in sustainable and environmentally considerate fisheries management.


Funding and EEZ

To fully achieve the above priorities, it is essential to fund and manage, to collect data and to control, monitor and enforce activities within the UK’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). It is also essential to enable regulatory bodies, such as Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities in England, and the relevant statutory agencies to be effective.

A UK EEZ provides opportunities to address issues facing our marine environment in a new way. Potential increases in the UK’s quota for shared fish stocks within this EEZ, for example, may provide an opportunity to invest in our seas.

Similarly, the fishing and aquaculture industry will require incentives and funding to transition towards sustainability and for the aquaculture sector to grow sustainably.

Close engagement and collaborative management with our EU and other neighbours remain key priorities to manage our seas. This is particularly so when addressing trans-boundary fish stocks and issues which are a joint responsibility of all sea basin users. For example, tackling marine litter will require close collaboration. However, this should not stop the UK from being a leader when it comes to measures that reduce marine litter.

Source: Marine Conservation Society, Brexit and our seas, June 2017


Post-Brexit: advocacy and influencing policy-makers

The current advocacy agenda of MCS is here,  but the 2017 Brexit letters are no longer on the website.


Last updated on 17th May 2024 by Richard Barfield