The EU and the environment

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How might leaving the European Union impact on environmental policy, funding and legislation in Northern Ireland?

Rathlin Island, one of 57 SACs in Northern Ireland (Image: Colin Park under Creative Commons)
Rathlin Island, one of 57 SACs in Northern Ireland (Image: Colin Park under Creative Commons)

The Assembly Research and Information Service (RaISe) published a paper at the end of August providing an update on developments following the EU referendum. It focused on developments in Northern Ireland and included an overview of the range of policy issues that the Executive might be expected to consider as they assess the potential impacts of UK withdrawal from the EU.

Last week, we published a short article which provided an update on the various legal challenges to the Article 50 process; these challenges highlight the uncertainty about the direction in which Brexit will take us. And as we highlighted earlier today, the Prime Minister announced this week that the Government intends to trigger Article 50 before the end of March 2017, and that it will include a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ in the next Queen’s Speech which will repeal the European Communities Act 1972. This provides a mechanism for the transfer of EU legislation with which the UK decides to continue. In theory, changes can then be made through secondary legislation with major amendments or new laws brought through separate bills. But in spite of these announcements, there is still little detail about the UK Government position in forthcoming negotiations.

What implications might there be for the environment?

The main implications of Brexit on the environment are likely to be legislative, with funding also being an important factor for businesses and projects that have availed of EU programmes. We recently published a research paper for the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs which highlighted a number of general questions that could be applied across the different environmental policy areas identified in the paper. These include:

  • Has a scoping exercise of the environmental legislation and associated regulations from the EU been conducted?
  • Has a scoping exercise of EU legislation that derives from international/global agreements been made, and consideration given as to how these will be implemented at a UK and Northern Ireland level?
  • Which of the affected policy areas, legislation and programmes will be retained by the UK Government and which will be devolved to Northern Ireland?
  • What will the procedure be for affected legislation – is it a case of repeal and redraft?
  • How many of the existing EU environmental requirements would the EU insist on for making trade agreements with non-EU countries (ie for getting access to the single market)?
  • What will happen to the main streams of funding and how will the Department meet any shortfall?
  • The paper also highlighted a number of more specific areas of consideration which are summarised here.

Waste and recycling

EU legislation has a fundamental and wide-ranging role in this area; relevant EU legislation includes (but is not limited to) the Waste Framework Directive, the Hazardous Waste Directive, the Shipment of Waste Directive, and the Landfill Directive. For example, the Northern Ireland Waste Management Strategy was published in 2013 in order to comply with the Waste Framework Directive, including the way in which it defines waste, the establishment of a hierarchy for waste management, the introduction of the ‘polluter pays’ principle, and the setting of recycling targets. Both this strategy and Programme for Government 2011-2015 proposed a target of 45% recycling rate for household waste by 2015 in order to build towards an EU requirement of 50% by 2020.

Water quality

The Water Framework Directive (WFD) requires Member States to have an integrated approach to managing inland and coastal waters. Northern Ireland currently works in co-operation with the Republic of Ireland for the management of the three cross-border River Basin Management Districts under the WFD, for which some form of continued co-ordination will be needed post Brexit.

Nature conservation

Key pieces of EU legislation around nature conservation include the Habitats Directive and Birds Directive. These provide for the designation of Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs). The requirements associated with these designations can have a major bearing on decisions for development projects that affect such sites. There are currently 57 SACs and 16 SPAs in Northern Ireland. In addition, Northern Ireland (as part of the UK) contributes to global networks of protected sites created under Ramsar, World Heritage and OSPAR conventions, and conforms to international agreements such as the Bern Convention and the Convention on Biological Diversity. However, these may not provide the same level and type of protection as EU legislation and consideration may need to be given to potential gaps.

Air quality

A group of EU air quality directives sets limits for ambient concentrations of pollutants, places a duty on Northern Ireland’s departments to achieve these values, and requires that the public are informed about air quality, particularly when alert thresholds are exceeded. The UK, including some sites in Belfast, failed to meet NO2 limits for 2010 and 2015. The UK and Northern Ireland have been subject to EU infraction proceedings; therefore, an exit may remove any future threat of fines. The UK may be able to set its own limits and deadlines but whether this would involve a relaxation or not is unknown at this stage. Any change may need to be weighed against the health effects resulting from air pollution exposure.

Climate change

The EU has set targets of a 20% cut in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared with 1990 levels by 2020; a 40% cut by 2030; and cuts of between 80 and 95% by 2050. From these EU-wide targets, Member States then developed their own targets. The UK Government has set a target under the UK Climate Change Act 2008 of reducing emissions by at least 80% in 2050 from 1990 levels, to which Northern Ireland must contribute. In 2013, the UK as a whole had reduced emissions by 30%, but Northern Ireland had reduced by just 16%. An EU exit may not necessarily remove all current climate change requirements. For example, the UK Climate Change Act 2008, while adhering to EU targets, also works towards reaching global commitments set by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). At this stage it is not known what powers Northern Ireland would have for setting its own targets or contributing to an overall UK target.


The Marine Strategy Framework requires Member States to take action to protect the marine environment and to use marine resources sustainably. Implementation of this is at the UK level, through the Marine Strategy Regulations 2010 and Marine Strategy, with which Northern Ireland must comply. The Maritime Spatial Planning Directive requires marine plans to be completed by 2021. These requirements have been transposed in Northern Ireland through the Marine Act 2013 which provides for marine planning, marine protection through the designation of Marine Protection Zones (MPZs) and marine licensing. DAERA is currently preparing a marine plan for Northern Ireland and recently completed a consultation on the designation of four possible MCZs here: Carlingford, Outer Belfast Lough, Rathlin, and Waterfoot. However, it is not known whether the UK Government or Northern Ireland Executive will seek to continue these areas of regulation in their current form following Brexit.


The EU seeks to regulate industry on the design and use of energy efficient products through the Eco Labelling and Design Directives, the use of chemicals through the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restrictions of Chemicals) Regulations and the carrying out of dangerous activities through the Environmental Liability Directive (ELD). However, it is not known to what degree the UK Government or the Northern Ireland Executive would seek to continue or change these processes. For industries having already invested to comply with the EU system, further changes or any reversal may not be seen positively. Norway and Iceland have in fact adopted the EU REACH legislation independently in order to provide consistency for industries and businesses.

Strategic Environmental Assessments and Environmental Impact Assessments

The environmental considerations involved in the planning and development process are currently driven by EU legislation. For example, the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive and the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive set out environmental assessment requirements for plans and projects. While the framework for environmental considerations of development are currently controlled by the EU, it may be for negotiations between the UK and Northern Ireland governments to reveal the level of control given to Northern Ireland and whether there should be any relaxation, tightening or retention of such requirements.

Funding for environmental projects and research

The Northern Ireland Executive, universities, businesses and other stakeholders, including the environmental Non-Governmental Organisations (ENGOs), have availed of EU environmental funding to support projects, initiatives, research and development, mainly under Horizon 2020, LIFE+ and INTERREG. Chancellor Phillip Hammond’s statement in August 2016 guarantees funding for successful competitive bids, such as Horizon 2020, while the UK is still a member of the EU, even when the lifetime of the project continues beyond any departure from the EU. Life+ was not directly mentioned in the statement. However, it is another form of competitive funding and further clarification may be needed.

The Chancellor’s second statement in October 2016 clarified that EU funding for structural and investment fund projects, such as agri-environment schemes (eg the Environmental Farming Scheme) and INTERREG, signed after the Autumn Statement, will continue after departure from the EU.