Sci&Tech Editor Ellen Heimpel explores the impact of leaving the European Union on environmental and scientific matters in the UK
At 11.pm on the 31st January 2020, the UK left the EU. It then entered a transition period that will freeze its relationship with the EU for the rest of the year. During this period the UK and the EU must agree on the exact terms of many negotiations. One thing that is commonly overlooked is how this is going to affect science. There are several main issues where policy negotiations during the next 11 months will have a big impact.
The UK is currently committed to reduce its carbon emissions under the Paris Climate Agreement. However, this commitment was jointly submitted with the EU and therefore the UK must submit a new UK-only plan for carbon cutting to the UN in the coming months. This could actually make it harder for the EU to reach its agreed targets by 2030 because the UK has performed better than many other EU countries on meeting emissions guidelines over recent years. This is just one of the things that will have to be worked out over the next 11 months. The UK is currently still part of the EUs flagship climate policy- the Emissions Trading Systems- by which 11,000 power stations and industrial facilities can trade carbon permits and incentivise greener options to reduce emissions. It is likely that the UK will leave this agreement and will have to come up with its own carbon tax or carbon market, although this may eventually link up with the EU.
In the past, the EU has provided funding for UK green projects such as the geothermal scheme in Cornwall. However, the UK will now be cut off from EU funds supporting green energy projects and therefore low-carbon investment could suffer unless this funding is replaced by the UK government.
Upon exit from the EU, the UK will also leave the EUs common fishery policy and officially become an ‘independent coastal state.’ There will need to be a new agreement between the UK and the EU about where, when and how both UK and EU vessels are allowed to fish. It is thought that EU vessels will still be allowed to fish in UK waters, and vice versa, subject to some restrictions.
Under EU law, subsidies to farmers are largely related to how much land that the farmers own, with smaller subsidies being linked to environmental actions for example helping to combat climate change. However, the new UK agriculture bill put forward under Brexit will not award subsidies on just land ownership. Instead farmers will receive payments based on the public goods they deliver- for example better water quality and reduced carbon emissions. This could actually be a positive thing for the environment, however defining what work is environmentally beneficial could prove challenging. For example, rewarding farmers for improving soil health is difficult due to lack of baseline measurements for soil health.
Other concerns centre around the uncertainty of how imports and exports will be affected. It is estimated that 65% of UK agricultural exports are to the EU and 70% of imports come from the EU. Heavy tariffs on these products could have big impacts on farmers. Additionally, there is the possibility that Brexit will put an end to the free movement of EU workers that many farmers have begun to rely on.
A YouGov poll commissioned by Friends of the Earth after the Brexit referendum found that 83% of the public expect the same or higher standards as EU laws when it comes to wildlife protection and protection of wild areas. Therefore, we might expect the government to value this and put effort into environmental policies. However, ex-chancellor Sajid Javid recently said that firms shouldn’t expect alignment with the EU environmental regulations following the transition period. This could for example result in more firms making fossil-fuel powered cars coming to the UK, with electric vehicles being built elsewhere.
The UK government is currently bringing forward an environment bill which that will transpose EU legislation on issues such as water and air quality into UK law. However, this will not carry over many of the green principles in EU legislation. For example, the precautionary principle and polluter pays principle may not be incorporated under UK law.
The production of medicines and other pharmaceutical products may no longer be aligned with EU regulations and therefore pharmaceutical firms may need to get drugs approved by European medical agencies in order to export to the EU. This could make exporting to the EU harder and more expensive, as well as making the UK less appealing to drug-makers when choosing where to operate.
The EU is an important source of funds for UK science research. Since 2014, UK science has received almost £1.1 billion from EU science funding, with almost 1,4000 of the 5000 grants given by the European research council since 2007 going to the UK. With this almost 22% of allocated funding, the UK have made exciting advancements in 3D imaging technology for regenerative medicine, nanoscience and understanding of proto-galaxies. Without this funding provided by the EU, will the UK science community fall back in terms of research?
A priority has been highlighted in making sure that EU scientists are free to live and work in the UK. International collaboration is highly important for scientific research, for example, in the particle physics unit of the University of Birmingham, out of 31 personnel, 12 are non-British citizens of EU countries. The government has recognised the importance of allowing this collaboration to continue and have announced that from the 20th February scientists, mathematicians and researchers will be able to apply for a fast-track visa scheme and that there will be no limit for the amount of people coming into the UK.
A major concern for UK scientists is whether or not they will be able to join the Horizon Europe research program that will run from 2021-2027 and involve about €90 billion of investment. The UK currently receives £1.5 billion from the 7-year Horizon 2020 programme but will now have to pay to take part in the next project. Concerns again exist that if the UK does not participate in this project, they will fall behind on scientific research.
In 2003 the EU issued regulation No 503.2013 on the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment. As a result, any commercial use of GM crops or crop products anywhere in the EU must be approved by the European Commission. Therefore, there are currently no GM crops grown commercially in the UK. This fact is unlikely to change with Brexit, however the definition of what is considered GM may be more prone to change.
Gene editing techniques such as CRISPR/cas9 have made many positive advances in scientific research, particularly crop biotechnology. This is a technique that involves making targeted breaks in DNA and causing specific mutations. This does not involve the introduction of any foreign DNA; however, it is still considered a genetic modification technique under EU law. In the US however this technique is allowed. Many UK scientists are hoping for new legislation under Brexit, meaning that CRISPR/cas9 is no longer considered GM. This could result in UK scientists being able to develop non- GMO crops with lots of advantageous characteristics such as drought or disease resistance and this possibility has been hailed as ‘the one good thing to come out of Brexit’.