Making social science accessible

28 Oct 2020


I became interested in environmental politics and policy as a teenager when, like many others, I swapped my CFC-producing spray deodorant for roll-on to save the ozone layer.

I have clear memories of watching, with mounting horror, news stories about the impact of acid rain, about seal deaths on the UK coastline, and, last but not least, about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster – now immortalised by Sky.

As I entered my 20s, a growing recognition and understanding of climate change started to characterise the news and political agendas. And it is still there today, inspiring a new generation to take action to better protect the environment.

The more I learnt about UK environmental politics and policy, the more it became evident to me that the EU had a profound impact upon how we design and implement domestic policy. This realisation prompted an on-going fascination with the EU and how it makes policy in general and environmental policy in particular.

When David Cameron first suggested that he might hold a referendum on EU membership in 2013, he not only ushered in a new era of UK politics, but also provided what has turned out to be my long-term research agenda.

Ever since then, I have spent significant chunks of time explaining to the wider public, my students and policy makers and politicians the nature of the relationship between the EU and UK and how it has shaped environmental politics and policy.

In an early evidence review, I worked with a team of colleagues to detail the ways in which the EU has shaped UK environmental policy, and has helped to put in place clear goals that can be enforced with the ultimate threat of fines by the European Court of Justice.

I have worked with Friends of the Earth to produce briefs on the risks associated with Brexit for different environmental policy areas. I also explored  the impact of Brexit on devolved environmental policy and recently contributed a Long Read outlining the implications of Brexit for UK environmental policy.

In collaboration with Professor Andy Jordan and Dr Viviane Gravey I helped to establish a network to bring together academics analysing the impact of Brexit on the environment from a range of perspectives to inform public and policy debates on the environmental impacts of Brexit.

Our team submits evidence regularly to the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the devolved legislatures. We also have a blog that is popular with policy makers and academics alike.

Currently I am working on a really exciting project headed by Dr Ruth Little to work out how to co-design environmental land management payments outside of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.

The aim is to suggest the best ways to deliver on the government’s promise to spend public money on public goods such as biodiversity protection, climate change mitigation and flood protection.

Whilst Brexit is turning out to be messy and apparently more complex than some had imagined it would be, there are number of simple lessons that I try to communicate when reaching out to policy-makers that could and should shape the future of environmental policy in the UK.

1.Environmental problems do not stop at national borders and you cannot solve them alone. Even though we are now outside the EU, we will need to work with our nearest neighbours to address common environmental problems. Nowhere is this more true than in Northern Ireland, which shares a land border with an EU member state.

2. Developing transnational solutions and partnerships requires trust. The UK has stated it want to deliver world-leading environmental policy. But to lead you need followers and states tend to follow and work with those they trust.

The furore around the adoption of the Internal Market Bill raises a key environmental risk that when the UK hosts the next international climate change conference (COP26, due to be held in Glasgow in 2021), it will struggle to forge the coalitions, which are critical to effective climate diplomacy.

1.Developing effective environmental policy requires long-term vision and ambition underpinned by appropriate resources such as staffing, expertise and finances. Rishi Sunak’s plans for a green recovery are welcome but fall far short of the ambition shown by other countries such as Germany and France and of what will be needed to grow out of this recession in a way that respects the environment.

2. Environmental policy only works if business and people understand what they are being asked to do and what happens if they break the rule – and breaking those rules needs to lead to a punishment that will cost more than is saved by breaking them. For example, if you plan to dump sewage in a river to save money the fine has to be big enough to make you think twice about doing it.

For that reason when the government brings the Environment Bill back to the House of Commons, I and others will argue again that the Bill needs to give teeth to the planned Office for Environmental Protection.

I have spent the last few years arguing and will continue to do so that we are at a critical turning point for environmental policy. Polling at the last general election demonstrated that a significant portion of the electorate cares about the environment. Yet there is an on-going crisis in biodiversity, a failure to halt climate change and for many in our cities the daily struggle to breathe clean air.

Dealing with these challenges will not be easy and requires long term vision and ambition. Crucially, genuinely world leading environmental policy is almost always a collective endeavour built upon meaningful partnerships of trust with other countries.

By Charlotte Burns, Research Leader of Brexit & Environment research network at The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Politics, University of Sheffield.


The unexplored impacts of international students

The state of Britain’s armed forces – time to panic Mr Mainwaring

What is behind the UK’s labour shortage?

Comparing the Hong Kong BN(O) and Ukraine humanitarian visa schemes

Sunak’s Brexit agenda puts style before substance

Recent Articles

Subscribe to our newsletter

* indicates required