Unless you are a mad-keen vexillologist, a certain flag’s anniversary might have unsurprisingly passed you by last week. On 8 December 1955 the Council of Europe first adopted the iconic European Flag, now used by the European Union. Under this banner the EU has endeavoured to ‘fly the flag’ for environmental issues on the global stage and, according to a recent Institute of European Environmental Policy (IEEP) report, has developed “probably the most complete and influential body of environmental law and policy in the world”.
For a long time it has been the EU, rather than UK-initiated policy, which has been the major driver of UK environmental legislation. The unexpected referendum result on 23 June will inevitably trigger a full policy and legislation review, putting around 70% of UK environmental protection laws at risk and potentially exposing the UK to all manner of environmental vulnerabilities such as habitat destruction and species loss.
61 years after the European Flag – a visual representation of steadfast unity – was unveiled, could the current period of flux amidst uncertainty about the Brexit process present opportunities for positive action by the UK environmental movement? As one of the 56% of 26-49 year old ‘remain’ voters I certainly hope so.
The UK must retain successful components of EU environmental policy and legislation post-Brexit in order to safeguard current levels of environmental protection. More than ever, defending conservation policies (such as the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive) and ecosystem management directives (such as the Water Framework and Marine Strategy Framework) in the face of ever-mounting political pressures (such as immigration, financial stability and healthcare) requires us to engage the people central to pertinent conversations instead of shouting from the side-lines or talking amongst ourselves. Rather than mourn the scale of the challenge we must seize the opportunity to ensure decision-makers have access to the best possible evidence and interpretation in order to make well-informed policy decisions about the future of UK nature and wildlife.
Brexit also offers a chance to improve existing environmental legislation. The 1962 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for example makes up almost 40% of the EU budget but contributes less than 2% of EU productivity and is often deemed an environmental failure, incentivising yield maximisation at the expense of biodiversity conservation. It is likely an alternative farming subsidy and Genetically Modified (GM) crop regulation system will be introduced post-Brexit. A delicate balance between conflicting priorities must be found, but nevertheless this is a chance to advocate restructured UK agricultural support which better-incentivises biodiversity conservation and sustainable land management whilst maintaining crop yields.
Brexit also confers freedom to shape entirely new environmental UK policy. The combined scientific expertise and practical services provided by academia and NGOs make them well placed to inform the environmental debate and shape UK policies which benefit both society and the environment. We must think creatively about innovative solutions such as integrated fishery and land management programmes and increasingly dense urban development combined with rewilding initiatives.
Perhaps the greatest UK environmental threat brought by Brexit is the potential barriers to international research funding flows and international conservation partnerships. Environmental phenomena don’t pay heed to political borders – animals migrate across continents and weather systems span the whole globe. In the UK, post-Brexit environmental research and conservation efforts must continue to match the international scale of the issues they seek to address. From citizen-science projects and social media campaigns to individual blogs and water-cooler conversations we must see Brexit as all-the-more reason to maintain effective links between UK, European and global environmental movements. Thankfully, with regards to climate change at least, the Paris Agreement seems mostly Brexit-proof (although whether it is Trump-proof is another matter).
Post-Brexit environmental disaster scenarios have been well documented; indeed, the rhetoric of the wider environmental movement is often criticised for being too heavily laden with doomsday scenarios. But now the referendum result dust has settled we can make the choice to see Brexit as an opportunity to reframe the environmental conversation in a positive light. EU-driven environmental protection has been good, but it has not been perfect. More can be done.
Whilst the longer term ramifications of the referendum result and the Brexit process itself remain to be seen, there is no time to waste in taking action. So let’s roll up our sleeves and get stuck in by keeping up to date with plans for post-Brexit environmental policy, by developing Brexit-based environmental solutions which capitalise on the UK’s leading academic ability in policy evaluation and ecological science, and most importantly by driving collaboration between NGOs, scientists, industry, government and the public on both a national and international stage.