Would leaving the EU affect environmental policies in the UK?

It is claimed by many that the EU has been one of the main drivers behind environmental improvement in the UK. This IEEP review lists key environmental achievements of the EU, including a fall in greenhouse gas emissions and a big rise in renewable energy generation. Leaving the EU will undoubtedly affect energy policy in the UK, but the extent of potential changes is unknown. Some worry that, freer of external control, the country could enter a regressive new phase when it comes to environmental issues. Below, we have picked a few key areas which could be affected if this change goes ahead.

Impacts on renewable energy

The EU Renewables Directive– published in 2009 – dictates that the UK must generate 15% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Without this legislation, it would presumably become easier for the Government to put renewable energy on the back burner – and that could be dangerous. The Conservative Government have not shown themselves to be particularly pro-green energy, repeatedly slashing green energy subsidies. The UK is already lagging behind other countries in terms of renewable energy generation and there is a chance that if EU-controlled competition is withdrawn, there would be little incentive to improve figures.

Impacts on air quality

Air quality is another key thing currently controlled by the EU. According to the rulings of the Ambient Air Quality Directive, the UK has illegally high levels of air pollution. This is not a crisis that looks like it will be solved any time soon. In theory, the UK’s own Climate Change Act (1998) imposes tough requirements that it must cut carbon emissions by 80% on 1990 levels by 2050. Similarly, Air Quality Standards Regulations (2010) set legal limits for air pollution. So this wouldn’t change if we left the EU. However, it is perhaps easier to ignore internal rulings than those coming from outside. Also, if free of EU environmental regulation, the UK could avoid fines for water and urban air quality. Leaving the EU could take some external pressure off – but would this be a good thing for the British public?

Impacts on recycling

Recycling is another key issue. It could be argued that EU intervention has been a good thing in terms of encouraging the reduction of waste sent to landfill.

The government has been outspoken against proposed EU guidelines. Take, for instance, Boris Johnson – who recently cited an EU rule banning the recycling of tea bags as pro-‘Brexit’ propaganda. He has since admitted no such ban exists, yet his vitriol speaks volumes about the many UK politicians who are strongly opposed to any EU control on the matter of recycling – or anything else.

If the Government are to have sole control over recycling, however, they will need to make a better effort at it than they currently are. Local councils are not hitting targets for recycling and levels of participation in schemes are dropping. It certainly hasn’t been made a priority for the Conservatives in recent years and they have done little to quash some people’s fears that it all goes to landfill after sorting.


Campaigners are alarmed at the thought of the UK leaving the EU because they argue it would be harder to call the Government to account over emissions and other green issues. While we’re in the EU, there is an expectation for us to fall in line with other countries’ advances. Without these constant comparisons, the incentive to tackle big issues like renewable energy and recycling could fall.

It has been suggested that there is a paradox at play; leaving the EU could mean a boom in technology resulting from reduced regulation, but on the other hand there may be less political pressure to do so.

Whilst in the EU, the UK arguably has a stronger standing in international environmental negotiations. In some ways, the idea of leaving the EU giving Britain more power is a double-edged sword. If we leave, some of the laws that govern us from Brussels will still apply – but Britain could have little say in them.

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