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Brexit need not mean the end of the UK’s strong environmental rules says WWF legal adviser Debbie Tripley


The European Union has contributed a lot to environmental policies in the UK, such as the EU Birds and Habitats directives, which saw the rare bittern brought back from the brink of extinction in the UK, and which have protected a range of wildlife sites up and down our country and across Europe.

Now that the referendum is over, you may be worried that the result will mean a bonfire of EU laws, with environmental ones suffering the most, to the detriment of our species and habitats and, in turn our social and economic wellbeing. However, this need not necessarily be so.  While there are clearly risks in a time of uncertainty, it is essential that we focus now on how best to protect our natural resources and environment in the post-referendum world.

There were many messages to voters during the referendum – some of them contradictory – so it’s important to try to cut through the fog for a clearer view.  We are a long way yet from tearing up our conservation laws and climate change policies, and now is the time to remind UK politicians that they have been leaders in these areas.

Cooling towers letting out steam and smoke at a coal-fired power station near Pontefract in Yorkshire, UK.Cooling towers letting out steam and smoke at a coal-fired power station near Pontefract in Yorkshire, UK.

The UK’s Climate Change Act is still hailed both here and internationally as leading the way on action to tackle climate change. Since it was passed, with the enthusiastic support of the then Opposition Conservative Party, the UK government has received a huge number of plaudits for it. It’s because of our climate laws that the government recently passed its fifth carbon budget promising to cut carbon emissions by 57% from 1990 levels between 2028 and 2032.  As our Climate and Energy Expert Emma Pinchbeck has blogged , this suggests that key figures within the government are determined to keep up that leadership.

Many of our environmental laws are the result of EU initiatives which have been transcribed into UK law.  They should remain in force until we finally leave the EU. Leaving will require Parliament to repeal the European Communities Act 1972.  Even then, environmental laws will not go overnight, if they go at all.  After all, our best nature conservation laws, such as those protecting vulnerable habitats and species, are not only cherished by the UK population but are now part of the fabric of our natural landscape.  It is vital that we fight for them, and maintain them.

These laws apply for both the big things we need to protect in our environment, right down to the protection of the smallest of species, such as the little aquatic rams-horn snail, no more than 5 mm in diameter.  A very local species in Britain, the little rams-horn needs a special kind of habitat: unpolluted, calcareous waters, the type only found in marsh drains with dense aquatic flora.  Our current nature laws are designed to protect the smallest of species in their natural habitat as well as providing protection for larger areas of the UK’s natural landscape.  Beautiful and iconic areas like the Dorset heaths, for example.  Since we passed laws to implement the EU Habitats Directive the UK has established 189 such habitat sites, protecting a staggering 788 species in their natural range.

Oak tree in mist, in a traditional coppiced woodland with hazel and bluebells, Dorset, UK.Oak tree in mist, in a traditional coppiced woodland with hazel and bluebells, Dorset, UK.

WWF believes it is vital that the UK keeps the best environmental legislation on our statute books.  These laws help us to protect our natural resources and address climate change.  Yet we know this is not just a matter of law, nor moral imperatives – but also of political will.  The environment was barely mentioned in the referendum debate, despite the efforts of WWF and others. That was disappointing, but it also means that there is no licence from the result to scrap our framework of environmental protections, and no reason why leaving the EU should mean going back to being the ‘dirty man of Europe’.

Instead, the government should rise to the challenge and put in place laws that will enhance and improve the resilience of our natural resources, marine life and ecosystems.  That’s why we think the government should set out a vision for nature. We expect the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, to publish a strong 25 Year Environment Plan (a commitment in the Conservative election manifesto), pass a robust Carbon Plan (which has been promised by the end of the year), set a decarbonisation target and implement the government’s international commitments, such as the Paris Climate Change Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.  If the government takes these steps, then it will have recognised that the vote to leave the EU was not a vote to trash the environment. We are certain that the British people – with their love of nature – want to see a world-leading policy on the environment, and will expect their leaders to provide it.

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