The Implications of Brexit for Scotland’s Environment – A view from the Royal Society of Edinburgh

21 Feb 2019

By William Hardie, RSE Policy Advice Manager

Last November, the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) published an advice paper examining the implications of Brexit for Scotland’s environment. It noted that withdrawal from the EU poses significant challenges to the maintenance and improvement of the quality of Scotland’s environment unless current EU arrangements are adopted in UK and Scots law. While both the UK and Scottish Governments have stated that there should be no dilution in the implementation and enforcement of environmental regulations, it is so far unclear how this is to be achieved.

EU Directives and Regulations have been influential in shaping environmental policy in the UK. Their implementation has been accompanied by a considerable improvement in the quality of the natural environment, particularly protecting species and habitats, improving water and air quality and reducing waste. The EU has also provided the environmental principles of precaution, preventative action, prioritising the rectifying of environmental damage at source and ensuring that the polluter pays.

Many possibilities for enforcement procedures post-Brexit have been mooted, from using existing legal processes, procedures and existing government bodies, to entirely new arrangements which seek to mimic those within the EU. Having explored the options, the RSE working group recommended the establishment of a new, independent environmental scrutiny and enforcement body for Scotland to address the challenges of maintaining and improving our natural environment following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It is worth noting that while working independently, both Scottish Environment LINK and the RSE have reached a very similar conclusion.

EU derived legislation has tended to be implemented in a piecemeal manner. An example of this is the difficulty of reconciling the risk-based Water Framework Directive with nature protection legislation which accepts no risk to protection of some habitats and species. The RSE is of the view that both the UK and Scottish Governments should take this opportunity to develop a more integrated approach to the implementation of environment law and policy.

To action these recommendations, the RSE asked the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament to consider introducing a new Scottish Environment Act which would incorporate key EU environmental principles and instruments in to Scottish law to safeguard Scotland’s natural assets. The development and agreement of common frameworks between the UK and Scottish Governments is critical to this process.

It was also recognised that Brexit provides an opportunity to develop a new approach for supporting food production in Scotland that takes greater account of environmental stewardship while continuing to ensure a productive and profitable agricultural sector. Of course, the nature of the UK internal market post-Brexit, the scope for policy divergence in the devolved nations, coupled with cross cutting issues, including future trade policy; will influence farm and forest profitability and, potentially, standards which will consequently drive environmental change.

The RSE advice paper encourages both the UK and Scottish Governments to explore with EU counterparts how the UK and Scotland can maintain access to key European agencies for the environment, including the European Environment Agency, whose membership extends beyond EU Member States.

Given the strength of Scotland’s research base, particularly in the environmental field, the RSE has been clear on the importance of securing the UK’s continued direct participation in EU Framework Programmes for research, including Horizon 2020 and its successor, Horizon Europe.

The RSE advice paper on Scotland’s Environment post-Brexit is available at:

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