Brexit could have major impact on environmental job opportunities

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The environmental sector and energy professionals have vocally supported continued membership of the single market. Photograph: Marian Vejcik/123RF
The environmental sector and energy professionals have vocally supported continued membership of the single market. Photograph: Marian Vejcik/123RF
Britain’s potential exit from the European Union could have significant impacts on the environmental sector with implications for careers. 

In the UK, a vast array of laws are derived from or associated with EU policy. Most are dependent on laws such as the Waste Framework Directive and the the Birds and Habitats Directives, and could be protected in the short term at least by inserting a ‘saving provision’ if the European Communities Act 1972 is repealed. This would ensure that EU directives could be retained as part of national law.

However, ultimately these laws are likely to be reviewed and the UK could dilute current environmental rules if a new government was more disposed towards deregulation.

This deregulation could be limited by continued membership of the single market, which the  environmental sector and energy professionals have vocally supported since the EU referendum results were counted.

If the UK were to remain in the single market, this would essentially be in line with the model followed by Norway. In this instance, key EU policies and directives in the sector are mirrored closely to ensure a level playing field. The EU emissions trading system (EU ETS) for example, would then continue largely unchanged.

Another option for the UK’s relationship with the EU would be through bilateral trade deals, which would reduce or eliminate tariffs, import quotas, export restraints and other trade barriers, in exchange for accepting EU rules such as the free movement of people. This is similar to the model adopted by Switzerland.

It would see the UK leave both the EU and the European Economic Area (EEA), and seek to gain access to the single market through negotiated bilateral trade agreements with the EU. It is likely that any bilateral trade agreements would require the UK to comply with some EU environmental laws but compared to membership of the EEA these requirements would be more limited.

The third scenario would see the UK rely on its membership of the World Trade Organization as a basis for trade with EU member states. This would make the UK free to act independently without being directly subject to EU law. The UK government would therefore have maximum freedom to “write its own script” for environmental regulation. 

Whatever option is chosen, much of the work generated would consist of redrafting vast swathes of legislation in a sector dominated by regulation.

As a result, there is likely to be a prolonged boost for consultants, lawyers, trade negotiators, analysts and finance specialists dealing with hedging against risks.

In particular lawyers will be inundated with work, and they point out that much of the reviewing and redrafting under the single market option could stretch out over long periods.

Energy and climate

The energy sector has been increasingly linked to the EU’s emerging energy union and smart grid, while climate policy is conducted in parallel with the EU and in many ways through it.

A weaker relationship with the EU would therefore risk major uncertainty, escalating energy costs and potentially job losses. It could in theory free the UK up to develop more effective laws, but the risk is that a deregulatory agenda could weaken investment incentives.  

Several energy firms such as Siemens with large wind energy interests have also scaled back expansion plans, and generally fear Brexit could weaken regulations. But many larger energy firms, for example Drax Power and SSE, have engaged in hedging strategies, giving them a measure of short-term relief from the Brexit fallout.

The labour-intensive energy efficiency sector is also concerned Brexit could weaken regulation, but the UK could now have a freer hand in reducing VAT on energy saving products.

In addition, lower exchange rates could offer at least a short-term export boost for green technologies and services, protecting some jobs, though raw material costs would increase.

Climate action in the UK, based on five-year carbon budgets, is largely driven by the domestic Climate Change Act 2008, which would not be directly affected by Brexit. On an international level, the UK has committed to the Paris Agreement on climate change, and for now remains a leader on climate action and diplomacy.

These commitments should in theory ensure a growing workflow on policy analysis, technical advice, climate finance, carbon trading. But how the UK and EU will coordinate action on climate change after Brexit remains very uncertain, and the degree to which the UK’s decarbonisation continues will depend on the political hue of the new government.


Waste policy in the UK is also strongly reliant on EU laws. This is particularly the case in England, which does not have a national waste policy beyond 2020.

Crucially, it is not clear whether the UK will be bound by the proposed circular economy package, which was adopted by the EU commission in December 2015.

Full details of the package are to be negotiated over the next two to three years but proposals include a 65% reuse and recycling target for municipal waste and a 75% target for packaging waste.

These ambitious targets were likely to have revived the flagging recycling industry and boost jobs, with a 2015 report from Imperial College London claiming a closed-loop society could boost the UK’s employment levels by up to 10% by 2025.

However, while Ray Georgeson, chief executive of the Resource Association, argues that the package might remain in force for the UK if it adopted the single market option, he is concerned the UK would then “have no point of influence on its contents”.

The Environmental Services Association's executive director, Jacob Hayler said the result of the referendum risked placing the waste and recycling sector “at the bottom of the government’s in-tray”.

“Once the dust settles it will be absolutely critical for investment in our industry that the government acts quickly to set out the terms of a UK exit and what it means for the waste sector,” he said.

However, Hayler offered a glimmer of hope for the sector claiming that, “regardless of our membership of the EU, there is huge scope for the waste and recycling sector to do things better”.

Nature conservation

There are also concerns that the Habitats and Wild Birds Directives will be lost because even if the UK remains a member of the EEA, it would no longer be bound by the directives. Emma Montlake, from the Environmental Law Foundation, said this would be “devastating” for nature conservation because it had “afforded significant protection when compared to that of domestic environmental legislation”.

However, without the directives the UK government would have more scope to alter the level and type of protection over Sites of Special Scientific Interest and other natural areas, potentially leading to an upturn in specialist conservationist roles.

For the UK to take control effectively of key areas such as energy, climate policy, waste and nature conservation, sectors that have until now been at least partly shared with the EU, a large expansion of staff numbers working in the civil service and other public sector agencies would likely be necessary.

On the assumption that the UK continues to follow a progressive path on energy and climate, expanded government departments and regulators are likely to be needed, together with growth in support from consultancies and technical staff. Such developments would need to reverse years of cuts in these parts of the public sector and salaries might have to rise to avert a sustainability brain drain.