ISWA President, David Newman discusses the uncertainties created for the waste and environmental sectors by the UK’s decision to leave the EU…
In case you didn't notice, a small majority of the UK electorate voted to leave the European Union. If you didn't notice, I guess you've been on holiday to the Moon.
The political and economic ramifications of the Leave vote are enormous. Let's try to make sense of it for what concerns our work and world, that pertaining to resource management.
Firstly, the effect of the vote is important not just for the UK but also for Europe. The glue which has held together the political consensus since the post - war and post Berlin Wall epoch, has come unstuck.
Whilst Britain may become more isolated and return to the economic decline it had before joining the EU, the risk is that within the remaining 27 countries, the desire to disintegrate the union increases- and with xenophobes in Italy, France and the Netherlands ready to exploit this, that is worrying. So Brexit is a potentially more damaging result for Europe than it is for the UK.
Secondly, policy matters. In waste and environmental management, policies matter a lot. The industry is driven by regulations, government intervention, government mandated taxation, targets, fines, penalties, enforcement.
Only governments can mandate policies that protect the environment of a nation. Whilst a local council can mandate them, its neighbours may not. So when governments join together collectively and mandate the sort of environmental policies we have enjoyed as citizens over the last 40 years in Europe, it's a big deal for the well being of hundreds of millions of people.
But when a government leaves this collective bargaining and can decide not to implement such policies, it is a big deal negatively for that population. This may be the case of the UK.
UK recycling levels have been flat now at 44% for two years- as the UK leaves the EU, will it retain an ambitious target of 50% recycling by 2020? Or will it shelve the target? The answer is most likely the latter. And if that is so, this means no more investments, no more growth, no new plants, in the country. It means 3 million tonnes of RDF will continue to flow to Europe, paradoxically, or back to landfills, sadly.
Will the UK adopt strategies around the Circular and Bio economies, as the EU is intending to do? Unlikely in the short term. Will the UK negotiate strong environmental standards in its bilateral trade agreements once it has left the EU? Well, it will be in less of a strong position to do so, as an isolated country. And if the UK adopts, for example, GMOs, will UK farm exports be allowed into the EU?
And finally, the EU has been a tremendous supporter of research and innovation funding. Will the UK continue to receive any of this? Or will the UK government have funds of its own to invest, once it has left the EU?
The major negative of Brexit is the uncertainty it has created. I am sure in five or 10 years time both the EU and the UK will have found ways of working together that will make todays debate almost seem laughable. But meanwhile, it is not a laughing matter because we cannot see a pathway forward.
We environmental professionals should come together to give clear messages to our governments, whether in the UK or Europe, that the environment counts, for us, our children and our grandchildren. And the air they breathe, the food they eat and the water they drink doesn't care about the politics- our health comes first.
David Newman is President of the International Solid Waste Association.
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