After last week’s decision to leave the EU, everyone has a lot of questions. There is a lot of uncertainty and there are going to be huge consequences – including for the environment.
The EU has long been the driving force for establishing nature conservation measures in the UK and it is unclear what will happen now we are going it alone. International cooperation is needed to protect species whose habitats can span several countries and Eu environmental legislation is built on the basis that shared wildlife can be better protected through international agreements.
The cornerstones of EU nature conservation policy are the Birds and Habitats Directives. The Habitats Directive creates special areas of conservation and subsequent protection to more than 200 habitat types and over 1000 rare and endangered species. The Birds Directive protects all wild birds across the EU, with a focus on endangered and migratory birds, as well habitat protection.
The success of these Directives is hard to argue with. A study published by The British Ecological Society found that birds protected by the Directives were much better off than those that weren’t. The species recovery of the bittern is one great success story. In just over a decade this rare bird has been brought back from the brink in the UK through reed bed restoration projects driven by Birds and Habitats Directives.
And it’s not only through these policies that EU membership has benefited our environment. Much of our environmental research and action is funded through the EU, and the EU LIFE programme, worth more than £600 million, supports 11 UK nature, biodiversity and environmental policy projects.
After we officially leave the EU this legislation will no longer apply to us and the funding is unlikely to continue. Even if we eventually put our own legislation in place there are likely to be many years of uncertainty which could threaten the progress we have already made. As an outsider to the single market we will also no longer be required to meet the strict environmental standards required for fair trade between EU countries. This is likely to result in reduced standards to cut costs – to the detriment of the environment.
EU policy has, on the whole, been undeniably beneficial for our environment and the benefits of EU membership to the environment was not denied by Brexit campaigners. However, it isn’t necessarily all doom and gloom for our beloved wildlife. In a statement to the RSPB, George Eustice MP said it was a “lazy assumption” that the UK requires the EU legal system to improve our environment. Currently much time is wasted considering if our actions meet strict Eu regulations. Outside of the EU, scientists and conservationists will have the freedom to innovate. try new ideas and to think from first principles what actions will really deliver for the environment.
Throughout the campaign, those who promoted leaving the EU argued that funding will not be reduced for wildlife friendly farming and that wildlife protection would even be strengthened after becoming independent.
Leaving the EU doesn’t look good for wildlife – but it doesn’t have to be a disaster. Eve without the robust framework and strict enforcement of EU policy, the UK can still make the right decisions for the environment. Whilst economic recession may be inevitable, the story doesn’t have to be the same for nature.
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