• The leave vote could have some positive consequences for the environment (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Despite many voters fearing a Brexit would spell bad news for the environment, it may not be as disastrous as we thought.
Michael Le Page

New Scientist
30 Jun 2016 - 1:16 PM  UPDATED 30 Jun 2016 - 3:22 PM

Brexit may be bad in many ways, but here’s a very faint glimmer of a silver lining. If the UK leaves the European Union, it might not necessarily be a disaster for the environment.

Anyone in the country who feels strongly about air pollution or carbon emissions is likely to have voted to remain in the EU. The general consensus before the vote was that if the UK left, it would be bad news for the environment.

And so it could be. But don’t despair just yet — there are five ways it might actually benefit the environment.

1. The UK wouldn’t be able to water down EU laws anymore

The biggest worry for environmentalists is that, on leaving the EU, the UK will rip up a host of laws covering everything from air pollution and wildlife conservation to recycling. Three such laws, including a directive that bans the dumping of raw sewage into waters where people swim, will definitely be lost if the UK invokes article 50.

But plenty of British MPs and businesses want the UK to remain in the single market. If the UK had a new arrangement like Norway’s, it would still be bound by almost all EU laws, but would no longer have any say in them.

This might sound like a bad thing, but in recent years, the UK has blocked or watered down many EU environmental regulations. For instance, David Cameron blocked an attempt to introduce rules to stop frackers polluting the environment or triggering too many earthquakes. Future EU environment laws may be stronger if the UK has no say.

2. Scrapping the CAP could benefit wildlife

Nearly half the EU’s budget is spent on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which sees £3.5 billion go to landowners in the UK every year. To qualify for this subsidy, land doesn’t actually have to be farmed – it just has to be kept bare, as if ready for planting or grazing. This system means that unused land that could provide valuable habitats for wildlife is often kept barren instead.

After a Brexit, many have assumed the UK government would start doling out cash to landowners instead, as promised by some Leave campaigners. But hard financial times could well mean that the government reduces these subsidies, or even stops them altogether.

This could make it hard for many farmers to continue. Those that do are likely to be pushed to use more intensive, less wildlife-friendly, farming practices. But overall, the end of the CAP might lead to more land in the UK supporting wildlife-rich habitats, because it would no longer give an incentive to land owners to keep areas that could be valuable to wildlife bare.

3. The failing carbon trading scheme could be fixed

The pound isn’t the only thing whose value is falling. The cost of polluting our atmosphere with carbon dioxide also plummeted after the Brexit vote.
British politicians were instrumental in persuading the EU to set up the Emissions Trading System in 2005, which enables big emitters like power plants to buy the right to pollute. The ETS is supposed to be the main mechanism for reducing carbon emissions in the EU, but it has failed. It has delivered an emissions price that is both too low and too volatile to bring about significant emissions reductions – the latest price crash in response to Brexit is yet more evidence of the system’s flaws.

What we need instead is a steadily rising price for polluting, to encourage long-term investment in emissions-reducing technology. While the UK could still remain part of the ETS after Brexit, it will lose its influence. With its voice gone, there could be a better chance for desperately needed reforms.

4. The UK could reap the benefits of gene editing

Imagine you have two crop varieties. One grows well and produces a high yield, but has to be drenched in pesticides to protect it from disease. The other is less desirable, but is immune to pests.

Combine them and you can get the best of both. The trouble is that doing this by conventional breeding can take decades and cost millions. But new gene-editing techniques mean we can now add a single trait – like fungal resistance – into a crop variety in less than a year.

The results of gene-editing can be indistinguishable from those of conventional breeding, leading some countries to decide that gene-edited organisms shouldn’t be subject to the same restrictions as organisms genetically modified to contain genes from other species.

The EU has been dithering about this for years. If the UK leaves, it could become free to create, cultivate and consume gene-edited organisms, including those designed to have a smaller environmental footprint.

In fact, the UK might open its doors to genetically modified organisms in general. It has long been in favour of the technology but has been held back by the EU.

5. Climate action will still continue

The process of ratifying the Paris climate agreement just got more complicated, because the EU signed up on behalf of all its members. Some renegotiation will be needed if the UK goes it alone rather than remaining part of the EU bloc.

But what matters more than formal ratification is that countries continue to cut emissions. The UK has already committed to cutting emissions by 80 per cent by 2050 under the 2008 Climate Act, which has nothing to do with the EU. While the UK has reversed a whole series of green initiatives over the past year, it still legally has to meet a set of interim targets as part of the climate act.

Last but not least, there are fears that the Brexit referendum result could lead to a global economic downturn. This would lead to lower carbon emissions, just as the a 2008 financial crisis did. Okay, it’s not exactly the most desirable way for reducing emissions, but we’re trying hard to look on the bright side.

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This article was originally published in New Scientist© All Rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.