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Brexit: Reversing Conservation Efforts in the UK | Wildlife Matters

Brexit: Reversing Conservation Efforts in the UK

Since the 1970s, the UK has been subject to much environmental legislation derived from the EU including but not limited to; the Water Framework Directive, European Climate Change Programme as well as the more well-known Birds and Habitats Directives (including the Natura 2000 Network). The ‘europeanisation’ of environmental legislation in the UK has undoubtedly had a profoundly positive impact on conservation in the UK and indeed across the continent. However, this is all about to change. On 23rd June 2016, the British public voted in an advisory referendum to leave the European Union, the process being more commonly referred to as Brexit. It is anticipated that this withdrawal will go ahead and could be complete as soon as 2019. When the British public voted to leave, it suffices to say that the environmental consequences were of little concern. Well, they should have been and here are just some of the consequences (I’ll try to throw in some positives):

A UK departure from the EU could put at risk long-term strategic conservation efforts at the continental level. In recognition of the fact that many wild bird species migrate across borders and that protection of these species could only be achieved with cross-border cooperation, the Birds Directive was adopted in 1979. Article 4 of the directive involved the creation of Special Protection Areas (SPAs) which receive strict legal protection. The latest statistics as promulgated in May 2016, show that the UK hosts 270 of these sites covering a total area of 2,801,870 ha². Article 3 of the Habitats Directive established Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) which aim to safeguard the most vulnerable of species and habitats, requiring protection at the continental level. As reported in September 2016, the UK hosts 653 of these sites covering a total area of 9,363,414 ha². The UKs network of SPAs, together with SACs form part of a much larger continental network of Europe’s most threatened and valuable species and habitats. This is known as the Natura 2000 network. The UK Government has not made any statement as to what will happen to these areas and the special legal protection that comes with them. If the legal status of these areas protected at the European level is lost, it could potentially break up a special conservation network which covers almost 18% of Europe’s land area. This, in turn, would threaten the strategic conservation goals made at the European level.

It is a crucial time for UK wildlife and the EU is at the heart of conservation in the UK. The 2016 State of Nature, reported that 56% of known UK species have declined since 1970. Wildlife in the UK is fast disappearing but RSPB Chief Executive, Dr Mike Clarke firmly believes that “our species and habitats are in a better shape than they would be without the Nature Directives”. Prior to the Directives, the UK had already introduced national protected areas known as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), yet these were still subject to development priorities and harmful agricultural practices. Consequently, around 10-15% of these SSSIs were damaged every year. In order to comply with the Birds Directive, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was amended so that by the 1990s, only around 2-3% of SSSIs experienced short-term damage. There are numerous cases of species now protected under the Birds and Habitats Directives which are recovering and even thriving. Take the Red Kite for example; numbers were so low that there were only a few dozen breeding pairs left when the Directives came into force. Their range was limited to the Welsh Valleys. Now, there are almost 2,000 pairs spread across the whole of the UK. This success was a result of legal protection stemming from the Directives in tandem with EU-funded reintroduction programmes. In short, the successes of EU driven conservation efforts with the UK’s cooperation should not go unnoticed.

Figure 1. Infographic showing how the EU LIFE programme allocates funds (Source: Defra)

Through Brexit, the UK doesn’t just stand to lose essential environmental policies but also funding for crucial environmental, conservation and climate action projects. Since 1992, the EU has contributed over €241m towards environmental projects in the UK. The EU’s LIFE programme, dubbed “The Financial Instrument for the Environment” has allocated the UK approximately €74m for 2014-2017 and that’s just for the Environment sub-programme (see Fig.1). Further funding is available as required in order to help implement environmental legislation. Just this year, the UK won an EU conservation award for restoring biodiversity and improving water quality in the Peak District Moors, an important Natura 2000 site. This restoration of previously damaged blanket bog was feasible due to a €5m contribution from the EU LIFE+ programme. Furthermore, there are also alternative EU funding streams that support the UK’s environmental sector. For instance, the EU’s European Regional Development Fund contributed €5.5m towards a national wind turbine blade testing facility based out of Northumberland, thus supporting the transition towards a low carbon economy. Following the UK’s departure from the EU, it is likely that the economy will take a turn for the worse and thus, the environment will drop further down the political agenda. The loss of EU funds combined with a potentially crippling UK economy would be disastrous for conservation in the UK and indeed the environment more broadly.

EU subsidies through the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) hinders conservation in the UK but Brexit may offer an opportunity for reform. Agriculture constitutes 70% of total land use in the UK and so it is understandable that EU funding is centred around the industry. However, it is simply propping up a dying industry with dire consequences for the environment. The CAP subsidises uneconomical hill sheep farming leaving our hillsides bare and bereft of trees, most prominently in Wales. The irresponsible payouts through subsidies, in most cases do not take into consideration the environmental degradation that will result. For example, the EU still pays for the construction of greenhouses that impinge upon wildlife sanctuaries as well as funding the drainage of wetlands. Fortunately, the UK Government appears to favour a removal of all price support measures which includes production subsidies. The report suggests a ‘sustainable CAP’ in which spending on the agricultural industry is reduced and efficiency is increased. There are also suggestions of agri-environment schemes (AES) which encourage better farming practices in order to increase environmental standards which is then rewarded by agri-environment payouts. Research has shown that the scheme tends to increase farmland biodiversity. Any of these approaches would certainly be a step in the right direction should the UK Government choose to implement them following the UK withdrawal from the EU.

Amidst increasing Brexit fears, by far, the biggest saving grace for conservation in the UK came when the Prime Minister announced plans to introduce a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ in the next parliamentary session. If passed into law, this piece of legislation will convert all EU legislation into British law upon the UK’s departure from the EU. This means all environmental legislation including the quintessential Birds and Habitats Directives would be maintained. However, it must be noted that the UK will no longer be held to account by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) which raises serious questions over whether the environmental legislation will be faithfully upheld in the absence of an overarching regulatory body such as the ECJ. Moreover, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has included the caveat that EU legislation would only be converted into British law “wherever practical”. This raises legitimate concerns over whether some environmental legislation will even enter UK law, let alone the implementation concerns. On the contrary, the UK does seem to be taking steps in the right direction with the recent ratification of the Paris Agreement and reassurance from the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that the environment will be left in a “better state than we found it”. If Royal Assent is gained, the Great Repeal Bill has the potential to offer a real sense of stability and certainty with regards to the environment and the future of conservation in a post-Brexit UK.

Even if the Great Repeal Bill is successful in retaining all former EU environmental legislation, there are still significant challenges that Brexit pose. Firstly, under-implementation of EU derived environmental legislation has long been an issue for the UK, especially with regards to the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive and air quality standards. The UK has been taken to the ECJ on several occasions for failing to meet environmental standards. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where this issue is resolved by leaving the EU and its oversight. Secondly, recent economic projections forecast a major negative shock to the UK economy including a 3% drop in GDP by 2020 and 5% by 2030. This will be facilitated by a reduction in foreign direct investment and technological advances. Consequently, the environmental sector is likely to be one of the first areas to see funding slashed as it has always been a low priority for Conservative governments and in times of austerity, it tends to drop even further down the political agenda. Finally, once transferred, the environmental legislation originating from the EU can be easily be amended or repealed under our parliamentary system, thus weakening the protection of species and habitats. These are just some of the challenges facing conservation in the UK without the continuity and oversight that the EU provided.

Despite the obvious negative consequences, there are some opportunities to enhance UK conservation in the aftermath of Brexit. The 2015 Conservative Party Manifesto promised a 25 Year Plan to restore the UK’s biodiversity. Whilst it has been delayed, the plan would provide an ideal opportunity for the UK to reform agricultural subsidies and implement an alternative such as AES, something that would have been very hard to achieve as a member of the EU. There will also be more scope to target funds at species and habitats which are of significant value/interest to the UK as opposed to the wider bio-geographical region of Europe. However, in doing so, it will likely undermine intergovernmental efforts for strategic conservation at the continental level. The UK Government can also take Brexit as an opportunity to come up with a fresh approach to conservation and go beyond the EU’s standardised framework and take the lead. One option could be to expand the relatively new Natural Capital Committee and task them to provide recommendations for a new system of conservation based on natural capital accounting, green taxes, natural capital substitution and compensation. Admittedly, this is quite the ecotopian viewpoint and thus highly unlikely but an opportunity nonetheless.

Brexit has clearly opened up a whole new can of worms with regards to environmental policy, law and funding which are still being uncovered as things progress. So far, it is clear that the environment will suffer as a result of our withdrawal from the EU. However, if Brexit tells us anything, it is that the world is becoming an increasingly unpredictable place; so perhaps there is hope for a more biodiverse and sustainable UK. As things unfold, I will update this blog with further information and opinions with regards to Brexit and the impacts this will have on the environment.

– Jessen

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