Rights at Risk: Scottish Environment LINK contribution on potential impacts of Brexit for environmental rights

30 Mar 2017

This week is a landmark for UK politics: it saw the triggering of Article 50 which initiates the process for the UK to leave the EU. In the wake of this decision and following the outcome of the EU referendum, a number of Scottish civil society organisations came together to assess how leaving the EU could impact our rights. Led by the Human Rights Consortium Scotland, Scottish Environment LINK provided views on how environmental rights could be impacted.

LINK believes that the results of the EU referendum put at risk a lot of our environmental legislation which has greatly contributed to the protection of our natural environment and resources. Environmental legislation is key to a sustainable future and tackling major challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss, resource scarcity and pollution.

Most of Scotland’s and the UK’s environmental legislation has been developed thanks to our country’s EU membership. The EU has provided a level playing-field across its membership for environmental protection. This meant that environmental standards were safeguarded against perceived competition gains, and instead sustainable and low carbon investments were encouraged.

As such, there is a risk that withdrawal from the EU will mean a rapid decrease in environmental standards and a race to the bottom. Legislation that encourages business and other operators to adopt sustainable methods of production or support provided to key industry segments such as farmers to pursue environmental objectives, may be compromised outside of the EU.

Scottish Environment LINK members believe that we all have a right to a clean environment; we depend on our environment for our health and wellbeing and our natural resources often are the cornerstones of our economy. EU law has provided a number of protections for our environment as it specified that the EU will work for sustainable development, and a high level of protection and improvement of the quality of the environment. In terms of the key principles underlying environmental policy, it underlined that it shall be based on the precautionary principle and that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source and that the polluter should pay.

In addition to providing this overarching framework, the EU has led environmental policy delivering a wide number of benefits, from cleaner water and air to protecting unique habitats and mitigating climate change impacts. In so doing, new sectors of the economy that focus on circular economy models and eco-innovation have flourished.

By choosing to exit the EU, this progress would be put at risk. Even if EU legislation not already part of UK and Scottish law became incorporated in national law, there would be no legal recourse to the European Court of Justice to ensure their proper implementation. In addition, the UK and Scotland would miss out on further legislative progress that is made at the EU level when it comes to transitioning to a sustainable future. Furthermore, important funding for innovative projects pursuing environmental objectives or eco-innovation would no longer be available to UK and Scottish stakeholders.

What is more, the EU has provided a legal framework that enables the implementation of important global commitments such as the UN Paris Agreement and its predecessors or the UNECE Aarhus Convention which provides citizens with important rights such as access to environmental information, public participation in environmental decision-making and access to justice. The EU has also been the vehicle for negotiating and applying a lot of other global agreements regulating the use, transport and disposal of chemical pollutants such as persistent organic pollutants or addressing important issues such as ozone depletion. While the international commitments of the UK will continue to apply, an exit from the EU will mean that other processes for complying with international commitments will have to be developed at national level. This is likely to create further confusion and delay implementation of these commitments on top of the overriding need to assess other implications of the UK’s exit from the EU. At a time when action is needed to ensure a sustainable future, focus will be diverted to disentangling legislation.

The importance of environment is clear when it comes to realising the UN Sustainable Development Goals, to which both the Scottish and UK government have signed up to. What is more, it is important to highlight that in a 2017 report, the UNHRC Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment emphasised the great dependency of the human rights to life, health, water and food on biodiversity underpinning healthy and sustainable ecosystems.

For more information please contact Daphne Vlastari (daphne@scotlink.org).

Further reading:

  • Read the full report here: https://hrcscotland.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/rights-at-risk-report-march-2017.pdf
  • More information about the UNHRC Special Rapporteur on human rights and the environment can be found here: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Environment/SREnvironment/Pages/Biodiversity.aspx
  • For the relevant provisions of EU Treaties on the environment see here: http://ec.europa.eu/archives/lisbon_treaty/full_text/index_en.htm
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