Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron announced Friday that he will quit as Prime Minister following a defeat in the referendum which ended with a vote for Britain to leave the European Union. CREDIT: AP Photo/Matt Dunham

The United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union Friday took the world and its markets by surprise, as implications of what happens now that the second largest economy in Europe is poised to exit the E.U. loom with no clear answers in sight...

What is clear, however, is that with its departure, Britain leaves not just a framework of cooperation on immigration and monetary policy, it also steps away from influencing a body of environmental laws that have made E.U. countries leaders in the fight against climate change.

From chemical regulations to environmental protection and carbon trade, E.U. environmental law has grown with complexity, making the E.U. a leader in this areas, outpacing even the United States. It’s worth to remember that similarly to the U.S., the E.U. started to act on environmental protection at the end of the 1960s. And “from that time the E.U. has been quite ambitious,” Apolline Roger, an expert on E.U. environmental policy and lecturer at Sheffield Law School told ThinkProgress.

Indeed, the E.U. has innovated in myriad areas of environmental policy even when major polluters like the United States avoided international climate pacts like the Kyoto Protocol. While doing so it created greenhouse gas emission controls through its carbon trade or Emissions Trading System; widely expanded toxic chemical regulation as they recently did with a Monsanto weed-killer that could soon be off the shelves; and even created so-called producer responsibility regulations so that products carry environmental considerations when undergoing design.

"In the general terms, we have made great progress over the last 40 years in environmental action and policies," Katja Rosenbohm, head of communications at the European Environmental Agency, told ThinkProgress. "There are some areas that we still need to work on and this is also due to the fact that some habits, consumption habits or development of the economies are influencing the decisions -- for instance in the transport sector, that would be one element that we still need to act upon."

Still, E.U. greenhouse gas emissions have decreased in the past 24 years, according to the agency's report released Tuesday. In 2014, E.U. emissions were 24 percent less than 1990 levels. That improvement is attributed in part to a growing share in the use of renewable energy, and the use of less carbon-intensive fuels and improved energy efficiency, though the European Environmental Agency found that energy demand also recently declined thanks to milder winters and the economic recession.

But more than weather and the economy, it was E.U. policy what pushed countries to follow environmental rules that they could have otherwise avoided. "Policy is one of the largest areas of E.U. activity, with more than 400 pieces of environmental legislation in force," said Tom Delreux, associate professor at the Institute of Political Sciences Louvain-Europe, via email. "They form a comprehensive regulatory system with a major impact on the member states, thereby considerably limiting the remaining room for manoeuvre of national policy-makers."

In practice, that also means that when policy makers disregard environmental laws, activists have had an external norm to take to take to the courts. In 2014, for instance, England was forced to act on air pollution in its cities following a European court justice ruling. "The E.U. is not always the best protector of the environment, but it is true that if a government doesn’t do great in an area, E.U. law was often a tool that the [nongovernmental organizations] could use to try to have the courts remind the states to do something about it," Roger, the professor at Sheffield School of Law, said.

Like all policy frameworks, E.U. environmental law has its shortcomings. Most notably, the price of carbon in its carbon trade market is low, Roger said, because too many quotas were distributed in the early stages and revised law hasn't been able to fully solve that. As a result, emitting carbon is cheap. In addition, countries that may want to have more stringent environmental laws on products have to negotiate with multiple nations because they can't have their laws affect the E.U. internal market.

Two major uncertainties now are what happens with Britain's environmental law as it distances from the E.U. in the next couple of years, and whether this Brexit will harm E.U.'s climate actions. As far as the E.U.'s 2020 targets that include not just emissions but commitments to renewable energy and more, experts said those stand and are close to being fulfilled either way. However, the Brexit is taking place as negotiations for the 2030 climate package are ongoing. Some officials, who were not authorized to comment on this topic, said negotiation might stall, others said it's too soon to know.

"There might be very different implications for the environment, and there might not be big ones because as the European Environment Agency we do have also member countries which are not members of the European Union at this moment, like Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, and that’s why we don’t know yet," Rosenbohm said.

For his part, Delreux said the UK has been one of the member states pushing for ambitious climate policies. It has had a major beneficial impact on the E.U.'s climate policies in the last two decades, as well as on the E.U.'s position in global climate change negotiations. And "in that sense," he said, "the E.U. is certainly losing one of its main leaders/drivers in the climate policy field."

Jun 24, 2016 3:00 pm


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