Some 17.4 million people supported leaving the EU, with 16.1 million voting in favour of remaining. Prime minister David Cameron also announced his resignation, saying that the UK needed a new leader to negotiate the nation’s future relationship with the EU. Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union, which would trigger the official two-year negotiation period, will not be invoked until there is a new leader, he said.

Martin Baxter, chief policy adviser at IEMA, said: ‘The vote raises significant questions for businesses, professionals and the wider public on environmental protection policy. 

‘In the lead-up to the referendum, IEMA members were overwhelmingly of the view that being a member of the EU is good for business and good for the environment. There was a real concern that environment and climate policy risked being watered down if the vote was to leave. Environment and sustainability professionals will now look to the future with some sense of uncertainty,’ he said.

The government must commit to implementing an equivalent or enhanced level of environmental protection and climate policy in the UK when negotiating the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU, he added.

Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive of the UK Green Building Council, said: ‘Both economic and political uncertainty will have some people asking whether the green agenda needs to be deprioritised while business goes into firefighting mode. This must and need not happen. The incentives remain strong for business to address climate change and other urgent sustainability challenges.’

The organisation would encourage ‘an unprecedented collaboration’ between progressive business, green groups and other trade bodies to make the case for a sustainable built environment to the government. ‘This requires a clear and consistent policy landscape – in or out of the EU,’ Hirigoyen said.

A sustainable built environment is fundamental to minimising the risks and costs, and generating new commercial opportunities, which are arguably more important now more than ever, she added.

The waste industry warned of a policy void while the UK’s relationship with the UK is negotiated. Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association, said: ‘The danger now is that the waste and recycling sector is placed at the bottom of the government’s in-tray. It is therefore vital for us to make the case for the circular economy within the UK and to highlight the advantages of a strong and competitive resource efficient economy.

‘Once the dust settles, it will be critical for investment in the waste industry that the government quickly sets out the terms of a UK exit and what it means for the waste sector, he said. ‘Regardless of our membership of the EU, there is huge scope for the waste and recycling sector to do things better and for the UK to improve its resource efficiency.’

David Palmer-Jones, UK chief executive of recycling company SUEZ, also feared that waste policy would stall, and said that the industry would work with policymakers to build on the environmental gains of the past two decades.

‘We will be working closely with each local authority and with all businesses where policy commitment remains high in turning our waste into a resource,’ he said.

Environmental law organiastion Client Earth, which regularly uses EU laws to challenge governments across Europe, such as its pending case against the UK government on failing to improve air quality, challenged politicians of all parties to affirm their commitment to strong environmental laws and to guarantee united action on climate change. 

The organisation’s chief executive, James Thornton, said: ‘Many of the laws which my organisation uses to ensure that nature and health are protected in Britain, were drawn up with the UK’s agreement in Brussels. Now as the nation prepares to go it alone, we have no idea which laws will be retained since those who campaigned for Brexit did not have a united position. They failed to make clear during the campaign which environmental laws would be kept.’

Client Earth would urge the government to live up to existing EU laws, he said, adding that anything that weakens them would be ‘a catastrophe’.

Matthew Spencer, director of the Green Alliance, said: ‘Britain will now have to create new national laws and stronger public institutions to fill the gaping holes that will be left as we jettison strong EU environmental agreements.

‘The public did not vote for a race to the bottom, they will expect standards of environmental protection to be at least as strong in the UK as they are in France and Germany. We now need a plan from government to achieve that.’

Jeremy Wates, secretary general of the European Environmental Bureau, said: ‘It is clear that the calls by David Cameron for EU reform based on haphazardly slashing red tape did not influence the debate.’ The European Commission, MEPs and member states should now work to create a Europe that listens to its citizens and that is fit to tackle the challenge of the twenty-first century instead of giving into short-term demands, he added.

Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group said that it was in the UK’s economic and environmental interest to engage positively in international negotiations on climate change and other environmental issues. The low carbon and renewable energy economy has a turnover in excess of £46bn, employs over 238,000 full time workers directly and British businesses are leading exporters of clean technologies such as ultra-low emission cars, he noted.

‘Showing its commitment to the Climate Change Act by adopting the fifth carbon budget and a robust carbon plan to deliver it and making rapid progress on a 25 year plan to improve the state of the UK’s natural environment must now be essential priorities for the government,’ he said.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) warned of a ‘red alert’ for the environment, and pledged to campaign to ensure existing environmental protections are upheld and not watered down once the UK leaves the EU. ‘We don’t have time for the environment to take a back seat through years of negotiations’, said FoE chief executive Craig Bennett. . 

WWF-UK chief executive David Nussbaum said: ‘Environmental challenges don’t stop at borders and many require international solutions. Leaving the EU brings risks and uncertainties for our wildlife and wild places.’

With the right policies, the UK could continue to be a global force for the protection of nature, he added, and called on the government to retain and build on existing environmental protections.

Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven said there was a real fear that Cameron’s successor would support a ‘bonfire of anti-pollution protections’. The climate change-denying wing of the Conservative Party will be strengthened by this vote for Brexit, he claimed.

‘Many of the laws that make our drinking and bathing water safe, our air cleaner, our fishing industry more sustainable and our climate safer now hang by a thread. But Greenpeace is determined that this country does not go back to year zero on environmental protection.

‘Over the coming months we all need to demand that the government replaces European regulations protecting nature with new UK laws that are just as strong,’ he said.

Author: 

Catherine Early is a freelance journalist.

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