What does Brexit mean for the UK’s environment?

by Dr Charlotte Burns, University of York, Dr Viviane Gravey, and Professor Andy Jordan, University of East Anglia. 

On 24 June the UK awoke to discover that it had voted by a margin of 4% to leave the European Union (EU). Immediate concern will focus upon the stock market and the value of the pound. However, there will also be important implications for the environment, which barely featured at all in the increasingly acrimonious campaign. In the short term the vote will trigger a request from the UK government to invoke Article 50 of the Treaties on European Union (TEU) for the UK to withdraw.  When this will happen is a matter of much debate since Prime Minister Cameron announced his resignation and called for a delay in triggering negotiations until October. When it is eventually triggered, Article 50 allows for a two-year period during which the remaining EU states negotiate an exit settlement (without the UK being present in the room) that they will present to the UK on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. There is scope to extend the withdrawal period, but only by mutual consent.

 Assuming that UK policy-makers are able to agree on the broad direction they wish to take, they will select from two main options: to join the European Economic Area (EEA) like Norway (the ‘Norwegian Option’); or to pursue an independent free trade relationship with the EU and the rest of the world (the so-called ‘Free Trade Option’). It is uncertain which will be pursued – the Leave campaign seems to prefer the latter option, and for many the Norwegian option is unpalatable. But what are the broad implications of each for the environment?

 The Norwegian Option

Under the Norwegian option the vast majority of EU rules and regulations will remain in place and business will continue as usual, with one major difference – the UK will no longer have an active input into shaping EU decisions.  It will become a policy taker rather than a policy maker. The UK government has enjoyed the right to implement higher environmental standards as an EU member and that right will be retained under this option. However, as a policy taker the UK will have no ability to weaken EU rules.  In an area such as REACH, where the UK government has been pressing for less stringent rules, the UK will lose its ability to shape policy.

 Moreover, whilst EU rules and regulations will generally continue to apply in the UK, under this option there are some notable environmental exceptions. The habitats and birds directives, which have been widely recognised as protecting the UK’s most precious flora and fauna are not covered by the EEA agreement and will therefore cease to apply. Key figures from the ‘Brexit’ camp have made clear their commitment to roll back wildlife regulations so it seems likely that the current protections will be weakened. The bathing water directive, which has played a key role in transforming the UK’s reputation from being the ‘dirty man of Europe’, will also cease to apply. Whilst it seems unlikely that the British public will accept a return to sewage-strewn beaches, maintaining high levels of protection may become an issue for future NGO campaigning, especially in view of the UK’s on-going struggle to meet the EU’s ambitious new standards.

On climate change the UK currently participates in effort-sharing to meet the EU’s greenhouse gas goals but again this legislation will no longer apply, raising questions about both the UK’s longer term climate strategy and the ways in which remaining EU states reach their allocated targets. It seems likely that whilst the UK will gain the right to negotiate separately from the EU in climate negotiations that it will nevertheless follow the EU’s lead, as other EEA states currently do.

Some environmentalists will rejoice when they discover that the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will no longer apply in this option. On fisheries it is inevitable that the UK will have to negotiate a replacement set of agreements due to overlapping fishing grounds with neighbouring states. Expert analyses suggest that the impact of Brexit will be broadly neutral but there will have to be long and complex negotiations to put in place an alternative set of arrangements (albeit ones that are likely to be very similar to the CFP). As for replacing the CAP, there is the possibility of a good deal of uncertainty about what kind of package will be offered to farmers, and the extent to which existing agri-environmental measures will be retained. The fate of Scotland in particular will continue to be a source of debate, which throws the future shape of UK agricultural policies into even greater doubt.

The Free Trade Option

Under the free trade option, which seems to be the preferred model for the Leave camp, the UK, like many non-EU states, will have to maintain a host of EU standards in order to access the Single European Market, but again as a less influential policy taker.  Whilst as an EU member the UK enjoys the right to implement higher environment standards, under this option there will also be scope for the UK government to implement lower environmental standards. It became clear as the campaign wore on that leading Brexit campaigners do want to scrap key EU regulations.

As under the Norwegian option, the UK will regain the right to negotiate its own international environmental agreements, but yet again it seems likely to follow the EU’s lead, unless, that is, a radical dismantling of national policies is foreseen. Of particular note here is the likely impact of a Brexit upon the EU’s position on climate change – the UK has played a leading role in developing and pushing the climate change agenda at the European level. The leadership role played by the EU is potentially at risk without the UK there to act as a counterweight to the more climate-sceptic governments in Council. Even the chief UN negotiator has suggested that Brexit could put the Paris agreement at risk. There is potentially much work to do then to shore up both domestic and international environmental standards.

Overall the future for UK environmental policy completely outside the EU is potentially quite bleak. Much depends upon: who becomes the leader of the Conservative party; the broad exit strategy the cabinet decides to pursue; the broad negotiating mandate that UK MPs grant the government; and the offer the EU is prepared to make to its erstwhile member.

It is by no means clear that the British public has really thought about Brexit in any great detail. Some voters may be persuaded to leap to the defence of EU policies; some maybe only too willing to dispense with some EU environmental ‘red tape’. It is consequently incumbent upon experts and NGOs to mobilise to identify those environmental rules we should retain and to remind legislators and the British public why the environmental rules we have adopted via the EU are important. That way we may be able to ensure that the environmental gains made since joining the EU are retained.

Changes to the PSA Environment Co-Convenors

After three years of dedicated service, Dr. Paul Tobin is standing down as Co-Convenor of the PSA Environment specialist group. Paul had the following to say about his experience as a PSA Environment Co-Convenor:


Dr. Paul Tobin stands down after 3 years as PSA Environment Co-Convenor

 “It’s been a real privilege co-convening PSA Environment with Louise and Elizabeth. Two particular highlights were the joint event we ran with PSA French Politics on the Paris climate talks, and co-authoring our Teachers’ Topic Guide with Elizabeth. Elizabeth will be stepping down in August, and I would recommend to anyone considering standing to go for it! It’s been a great experience.”

Replacing Paul as the new Co-Convenor for PSA Environment is Shashi van de Graaff. Shashi is a PhD student from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.

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Shashi van de Graaff joins the PSA Environment team as Co-Convenor

Shashi recently submitted her PhD thesis for examination and now resides in the UK. Her PhD research investigates historical and contemporary developments in civil nuclear energy programmes, looking specifically at the disjuncture between the rhetoric and reality of the “nuclear renaissance” throughout Western Europe and North America. Shashi is particularly interested in the relationship between energy, the environment and climate change. Prior to her PhD, Shashi worked at the University of Queensland’s Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining, working on research projects aiming to improve the social performance of the resources industry globally.

A new opportunity to join the PSA Environment team will become available in August, as Elizabeth Bomberg will be standing down. If you are interested in replacing Elizabeth as a PSA Environment Co-Convenor, please email Elizabeth directly (e.bomberg [at] ed.ac.uk).




Winner of the PSA Environment Best PhD Paper Competition

As part of the 2016 Political Studies Association Conference, the PSA Environment Group held a competition for the best paper written by a PhD Student with a prize of £100 in Blackwells vouchers for the winner. Entrance was open to PhD Students who had presented a paper at the conference, and who are also members of the PSA and the PSA Environment Specialist Group. We are very excited to announce that Fay Farstad from the University of York has won the competition with her paper examining variation in party salience on climate change. A very big congratulations to Fay! A short summary of Fay’s paper can be found below.

What explains variation in party salience on climate change?

The article explains variation in party salience on climate change, examining the effects of party characteristics. The party characteristics that are tested have previously been identified as relevant in individual country case studies, but have never before been tested comparatively or quantitatively. Creating a novel measure of parties’ climate change salience based on Comparative Manifesto Project data, the article finds that political orientation is more important than any other party characteristic in explaining variation in their climate change salience. This underlines the importance of ideology over size and strategic incentives, economic and policy preferences, and incumbency constraints. In addition to its empirical contribution, the article also fills significant gaps in the literature. By focusing on political parties and party characteristics, the article fills an important gap in the comparative climate policy literature, which is often focused on national governments and country characteristics, or international negotiations. Secondly, by focusing on climate change in particular, it fills a significant gap in the party politics literature, which is often concerned with the environment only. Collectively, these are important gaps to fill. Understanding why mainstream parties are more or less positive to climate change sheds light on opportunities and barriers to party competition and action on the issue, and importantly also feed into the wider literature on the adaptability of parties to new issues, and the nature of the climate change issue.


Winner of the PSA Environment Best PhD Paper Competition – Fay Farstad, University of York

Fay Madeleine Farstad is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics at the University of York. She holds a BA in Philosophy and Politics from the University of York and an MPhil in Environmental Policy from the University of Cambridge. She has also been a visiting scholar at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra under the auspices of Prof. John Dryzek. Her research focuses on the comparative party politics of climate change, and her thesis is entitled: ‘From consensus to polarisation: what explains variation in political party agreement on climate change?’ In responding to this question she takes a comparative and mixed-methods approach, combining large and medium-N statistical analyses with a qualitative comparison of Australian and Norwegian parties. Her research is supervised by Prof. Neil Carter and Dr. Sofia Vasilopoulou, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.


Will the Environmental Audit Committee Report at last bring the environment onto the referendum campaign agenda?

by Dr. Charlotte Burns, University of York

As the remain and leave sides launch their campaigns in the run up to the 23rd June referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, the environment may at last emerge as an issue, with the publication of the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) report on the EU and UK environmental policy. Although this is the third report to be published since March reviewing the implications of the referendum for the UK’s environment, neither the remain nor leave groups has yet engaged with the issue in a significant way. The recent government leaflet explaining why the country should vote to remain in the EU makes only one passing mention of climate change and none of wider environmental policy. The Prime Minister’s reform mandate was also notably quiet on the subject. This silence is somewhat surprising given the widespread acceptance amongst experts that the EU has had a significant impact upon the UK environment. The UK was known as the ‘Dirty man of Europe’ in the 1970s and 1980s and the EU is widely credited with helping the clean up the national environment. Leading think-tank, the Institute for European Environmental Policy argued in its report in March that the EU has been good for the UK’s environment and expressed concern over the prospects for habitats and birds in the event of a ‘brexit’.  I have been working with a group of independent experts, funded by the UK in Changing Europe initiative and our report suggests that on balance EU membership has been beneficial for the UK’s environment. The EAC report published today is similarly positive.

There are several key areas of agreement across the reports. First, environmental policy benefits from transnational governance arrangements: pollution does not respect national borders and therefore mitigation of environmental problems requires cooperation across and between states. The EU provides a vehicle for such cooperation. Second, dealing with environmental issues requires clear targets and deadlines. A key impact of the EU upon the UK has been the requirement for clear policies with strong enforcement mechanisms, which UK citizens can rely upon. For example, the UK government is currently facing legal action over failing to meet air quality standards. EU policy also provides a degree of long term stability, and a more certain investment climate for the kinds infrastructural development required to, for example, make the transition to a low-carbon economy  or to secure better water quality via projects such as the Thames Tideway tunnel.

However, it is important to note that not everyone agrees with these findings. One member of the EAC, Peter Lilley, a leading Eurosceptic, insisted that a dissenting report expressing his views be appended to the main document. The calls from the Conservative backbenches for a bonfire of red tape have often had EU environmental regulations in their sights, and a recent Economist blog  suggests climate scepticism often goes hand-in-hand with euro-scepticism.   It seems unlikely then that any of these reports is going to change the mind of hardened eurosceptics. However, for those who are more uncertain about their voting intentions the findings of the EAC and other reports may provide food for thought.

The report in which I have been involved outlines three scenarios following the referendum: a vote to remain in a ‘reformed EU’; a vote to leave followed by joining the European Economic Area (EEA), the so-called ‘Norwegian option’; and a vote to leave the EU and develop a free trade agreement of some kind, the ‘free trade option’.  In the first two of these options the UK government will continue to be subject to EU standards in most areas and subject to enforcement proceedings. However, in the third ‘free trade’ case, whilst the Government is still likely to be subject to product rules in order to access the single European market, it will enjoy more freedom to reform existing environmental rules than it does currently as an EU member, where it can strengthen those rules, but cannot weaken them.  There is a shared pessimism amongst experts about the likely attitude of the UK government towards environmental protection under these circumstances. There appears to be a broadly cynical view that the UK government, regardless of its ideological composition, is unlikely to maintain the same level of protection or funding for the environment as that provided currently thanks to EU membership. We can only hope that the publication of the EAC report will force more explicit discussion of these issues by the campaigns with some detailed outlines of what a vote to remain or leave will mean for the UK’s environment.

Dr. Charlotte Burns is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Politics and Policy in the Environment Department at the University of York. She submitted evidence to EAC, is the co-author of The EU Referendum and the UK Environment: An Expert Review, and is the author of FoE Report, The Implications for UK Environmental Policy of a Vote to Exit the EU.

We have won the PSA Specialist Group of the Year!



Steve Bell from the Guardian presents the prize.

Excellent news everyone! At the PSA Annual Conference dinner on Tuesday 22nd March, we were named the PSA Environment Specialist Group of the Year. Steve Bell, the Guardian’s political cartoonist, awarded us the prize. The prize results from all of the hard work put in by our members, including participating in our event (co-organised with PSA French Politics) on the 2015 Paris Climate Talks, and presenting on any of our six panels at this year’s Conference.

Here’s what the judges had to say:-



Louise, Elizabeth and Paul with the certificate.

“This year’s winning submission has achieved considerable success in extending the reach and significance of our discipline. Such endeavours are to be applauded given that growing emphasis by, and expectation of, government and other funders on ‘impact’, ‘relevance’ and ‘engagement’, particularly with users and practitioners in industry, schools, and the public sector broadly. In that respect, our Specialist Group of the Year 2015 winners have excelled. Through an active website and blog, the online reach of this SG has been particularly impressive, serving as the ‘go to’ place for information, not just for academics but a diverse array of other users in the wider community. The extensive list of panels, workshops and events with which this SG was involved is impressive, including the PSA’s sponsored panel at the 2015 APSA annual meeting. Similarly, via its Teachers Guide to Environmental Politics, the SG has helped fulfil the promotion of the ‘educational pipeline’ which is a key aim of the Association, while its active role in summer school activity has helped in engaging high achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the study of politics at the University of Edinburgh.”




A discussion at the forum on the Paris climate talks, held at the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation in December 2015, co-hosted with PSA French Politics.

PSA Conference 2016

This year’s PSA Conference is taking place between the 21st and 23rd March, and will be held at the Hilton Brighton Metropole.


Image courtesy of Visit Brighton

PSA Environment will be hosting a drinks reception and meal at the Hop Poles pub, just five minutes’ walk from the Hilton. We will be arriving at 6pm for drinks, and have reserved tables for food at 7pm. Although the deadline for saving a seat at the meal has now passed, if you are interested in attending, please get in touch. We already have over 20 confirmed environmental politics specialists attending, so it should be a good one!

We’ll also be holding our AGM from 12.30-1.30 on Tuesday 22nd March in the Gloucester Room.

This year, we are pleased to have filled all six of our allocated panels at the PSA Conference, while three further environmental politics panels have been organised.

PSA Environment Panels at #PSA16:

Shale Politics and Policy in the UK

Room: Ambassador

Time: Tues 22nd March 09:30 – 11:00

Panel Chair: 

Professor Mathew Humphrey

Panel Members: 

Dr Jessica Andersson-Hudson

Dr Ashley Dodsworth

Professor Elizabeth Bomberg

Dr Hannes Stephan

Professor Paul Cairney


Party Politics and Climate Change Part I

Room: Ambassador

Time: Tues 22nd March 13:30 – 15:00

Panel Chair: 

Professor Robert Ladrech

Panel Members: 

Professor Neil Carter

Miss Fay Farstad

Dr Peter Christoff


Party Politics and Climate Change Part II

Room: Ambassador

Time: Tues 22nd March 15:30 – 17:00

Panel Chair: 

Professor Neil Carter

Panel Members: 

Professor Robert Ladrech

Dr Caroline Kuzemko

Dr Paul Tobin

Miss Fay Farstad


Nuclear energy: Still a contested energy source?

Room: Hilton Meeting Room 3

Time: Weds 23rd March 11:00 – 12:30

Panel Chair: 

Dr Paul Tobin

Panel Members: 

Dr Christiane Smith

Ms Shashi van de Graaff

Dr Antje Brown

Dr Phil Johnstone


Local Environmental Politics

Room: Buckingham

Time: Weds 23rd March 15:30 – 17:00

Panel Chair: 

Dr Marit Böker

Panel Members: 

Mr Robin Jervis

Dr Ros Hague

Ms Alice Hague

Mr Max Lempriere


Climate Policy and Sustainable Development

Room: Grand Consort Room

Time: Weds 23rd March 15:30 – 17:00

Panel Chair: 

Professor Robert Ladrech

Panel Members: 

Dr Lucy Michaels

Dr Matthew Lockwood

Professor Rosalind Wade

Ms Rebecca Willis

Additional environmental politics panels at #PSA16:

Reassessing Environmental Authoritarianism in China

Room: Hilton Meeting Room 4

Time: Tues 22nd March 13:30 – 15:00

Panel Chair: 

Dr Nele Noesselt (GIGA Institute of Asian Studies)

Panel Members: 

Dr Geoffrey Chun-fung Chen (University of Duisburg-Essen)

Mr Lukas Witt (University of Duisburg Essen)

Dr Thomas Johnson (City University of Hong Kong)

Dr Jinghan Zeng (Royal Holloway, University of London)

Dr Ying Miao (Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University)



Room: Hilton Meeting Room 2

Time: Tues 22nd March 15:30 – 17:00

Panel Chair: 

Dr Umut Korkut (Glasgow Caledonian University)

Panel Members: 

Miss Caroline McCalman (University of Sheffield)

Dr Paul Anderson (University of Warwick)

Dr Louise Reardon (University of Leeds)


Participatory and Deliberative Democracy & Environmental Politics Session 3: Democracy, Climate Change and Sustainability

Room: Surrey Suite 1

Time: Weds 23rd March 11:00 – 12:30

Panel Chair: 

Dr Alfred Moore (University of Cambridge)

Panel Members: 

Professor Graham Smith (University of Westminster)

Dr Marit Böker (Keele University)

Mr Wayne Foord (Queens University Belfast)

Why Heathrow 13 verdict could lead to more radical climate activism, not less

by Graeme Hayes and Brian Doherty.

***First published on The Conversation.

The so-called “Heathrow 13” Plane Stupid climate activists have been given suspended prison sentences for trespassing on the airport’s runway. The case – and the decision of the judge to hand down custodial sentences at all, even if they were suspended – illustrates the way judicial attitudes to unlawful climate activism have seesawed over the years, and the harsh treatment meted out to the activists may yet backfire.

In 2008, six Greenpeace activists who had admitted causing criminal damage at Kingsnorth power plant were found not guilty by a jury, following a week of expert testimony on coal and climate change. It seemed a significant moment for the UK climate movement. Their “lawful excuse” defence justified their actions to fight global warming, and appeared to offer campaigners a way to make governments take both notice and action.

But subsequent acts of mass disobedience faltered: in April 2009, 114 activists planning to shut down Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station were pre-emptively arrested in a case which ultimately brought to light the extent of police infiltration of the environmental protest movement.

Do you have your boarding pass ready, sir?Plane Stupid / PA

Later that year 29 activists were found guilty of “obstructing the railway” by a jury in Leeds after the judge refused to allow them to present a necessity defence and call expert witnesses to justify their “hijacking” of a coal train at Drax power station. And in June 2010, nine Plane Stupid activists were found guilty by a jury and fined for breach of the peace after they had broken into Aberdeen airport and played golf on the runway, dressed as Donald Trump. Taking non-violent direct action in order to “put climate change on trial” seemed at a dead end.

The trial of the Heathrow 13 may have changed all that. In fact, the activists probably owe a vote of thanks to district judge Deborah Wright. History tells us that social movements not only mobilise when conditions are favourable; they also mobilise in response to threat, especially where that threat is widely seen as an injustice.

The court’s guilty verdict was to be expected, but the judge’s threat to impose the maximum sentence of three months imprisonment succeeded in producing a wave of sympathetic media coverage, internet petitions and an impressive and sustained show of solidarity from 300 or so supporters outside the court. Criminal trials are social theatre: Wright’s promise of a punitive sentence turned this one into a political event.

Protesters hold up a train taking coal to the giant Drax power station. John Giles / PA

In so doing, the trial reminds us that the courts, especially the criminal courts, are a site of battles over legal and political legitimacy. Trials like that of the Heathrow 13 are, in the strict sense, about the causes that motivate action, the weighing of harms and the acceptability of specific conducts – but they are also about the scope that democratic societies afford for small groups of citizens to challenge what they perceive to be injustice in the name of the collective good.

What next for the climate movement?

Though the Heathrow 13 were spared jail time, a suspended prison sentence for a non-violent minor crime, committed by (largely) first-time offenders, arguably remains extraordinary and excessive. In 2006, sitting in a High Court appeals case of anti-war activists who had committed aggravated trespass and criminal damage at RAF Fairford on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Lord Justice Hoffmann formalised a basic bargain: where activists act in a publicly accountable way – with restraint, sincerity, and a sense of proportion – then police, prosecutors, and magistrates should show sensitivity and equal restraint, taking the conscientious motives of protesters into account.

Activists are aware of the bargain: the Heathrow defendants certainly were, and it is a staple of advice for would-be environmental disobedients.

But this sentence throws the bargain into confusion. By acting with less restraint – and causing more damage – activists can potentially secure a jury trial. Though the potential penalties are more severe, this move typically works in favour of the activists as juries, in general, are less likely than magistrates to convict in these sorts of cases (despite the Leeds and Aberdeen verdicts).

But if magistrates are now imposing jail time, actual or suspended, for minor offences, then acting with restraint starts to appear less attractive. If you’re going to be dealt with harshly for aggravated trespass, you may as well cause criminal damage too, because that might get you a more favourable trial.

This year will see a concerted wave of climate disobedience across Europe, as activists react, post-Paris, both to the lack of a concrete action plan by Western governments and to the apparent necessity of citizen action in order to force governments do anything meaningful at all. In the UK, we should expect more climate disobedience, not less: the Heathrow 13 trial raises the stakes.

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not designed to reflect the position of the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics.  The Group encourages thoughtful and respectful reflection on the content in the comments section of the post.*