Brexit vote means end of circular economy for UK business

29th June 2016

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  • Business & Industry ,
  • Politics & Economics ,
  • England


Miriam Olivier

The relevance of the European Commission's circular economy package to British business has one in one fell swoop' following the vote to leave the EU, according to a leading environmental lawyer.

Speaking at an IEMA webinar on the implications of the vote for environmental law and practice, Simon Colvin, partner and national head of the environment team at Weightmans, said that the circular economy package would have been a huge opportunity over the the next 5–15 years.

‘It’s so all-encompassing in terms of the products we use and the waste we generate it was going to catalyse so many things in so many areas.

‘And that’s just gone now really, in one fell swoop,’ he said.

The UK government has taken the view that it does not need to do anything about waste, as there was such a proactive approach at EU level, he added.

‘Now that’s gone, it leaves a massive hole and that needs to be addressed pretty quickly. We need new incentives for waste, those sorts of things can’t wait three years for the government to get their heads around them. If we wait then we’re adding problems into the system further down the line,’ Colvin warned.

Josh Fothergill, IEMA policy lead on sustainable resource management, said at workshops he had attended with the business and environment departments it was ‘very very obvious that the UK government had no position on the circular economy’.

Speaking about the process of withdrawing from the EU, Colvin warned that the two-year timeline imposed by Article 50 (the mechanism by which a member state leaves) for negotiating a deal was very tight. ‘Article 50 is designed to deter people from leaving, not to facilitate it. That would suggest it’s going to be quite difficult to work our way through it.’

Environmental practitioners should not expect any changes to legislation for at least two and a half years, he said. There will not be any material changes to UK legislation until the future of trading relations had been agreed because new laws would be required to the meet trading frameworks, he said.

Colvin said he expects emergency legislation in the ‘very near future’ about the status of existing EU legislation in the UK. ‘Without that, there’s not enough certainty for regulators and businesses to operate.’

Asked if he believed that environmental protections would be watered down in the UK once it leaves the EU, he said that there is a real risk. ‘As a result of the recession, we saw environmental considerations fall to the back of the queue. The government only has so much time and capacity to deal with issues, and they’re going to focus on economy and trade. The profession as a group will have to try to police that,’ he said.

In theory, the UK could increase environmental protections beyond that required by EU law, Colvin said, though he though the likely outcome was bigger differences between the devolved nations. He argued that Wales and Scotland had moved ahead of England on environmental protection, largely because the English approach was to go only as far as what it is required by EU law.

‘England is bumping along the bottom of the [EU] baseline and if that goes, it may fall even further behind.’ He said environment sustainability practitioners should aim to stop that happening and ensure England is on a par with those jurisdictions..

Despite the uncertainty, there are ways that businesses can begin to prepare for the changes ahead, Colvin said. These include consideration of:

  • whether your business operates just within the UK, or within the EU or globally;
  • the legal obligations set out in the EMS and whether they derive from the UK or the EU or both;
  • if those controls will continue to apply through other requirements, such as: UK law; international trade agreements; customer requirements; or obligations imposed by a destination country for goods and services.

Businesses can then begin to assess the business impacts and risks, he said.

IEMA's webinar is available to view here.


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