What does Brexit mean for forests?

For many living in the UK but feeling European, the referendum verdict comes as a great shock. Fern staff feel the decision particularly strongly as we have offices both in Brussels and the UK.

Field mission in the Republic of the Congo by OI-FLEGT

The vote split across political parties and the traditional left and right. It brought together those who feel that “foreign influences” hamper their lives, and gave them a common enemy in the EU. Brexit can be seen as a vote against globalisation and the neo-liberal economic model, as well as a vote not to share our wealth with immigrants and refugees. The decision risks inflaming nationalist sentiments and may trigger the break-up of the UK and the EU.

The consequences will be profound, possibly setting European history back for generations. It also risks hampering the development and implementation of environmental policies at a time when the threat of climate change is more pressing than ever. Fern is therefore deeply concerned about the implications of the vote. Although it is too early to understand all its ramifications, it is already clear that action to protect and restore forests and mitigate climate change will now slow down across the EU.

So what does it mean for forests and forest peoples?

The UK was one of the driving forces behind the EU’s relentless and aggressive trade agenda, which gives vast powers to companies, taking away powers from governments. This has had negative environmental and social impacts across the world and so, some hope, the UK leaving may possibly create more space for a different trade regime.

In general however, Brexit is bad news for the UK, Europe and the environment. The EU has brought many environmental benefits for citizens and nature across Europe, specifically in the UK. UK beaches are cleaner, air less polluted and biodiversity safer because of EU rules. The UK has also brought many benefits to the EU.  In terms of the EU’s impact on forests outside of the EU, the UK’s role has been bigger than that of most Member States.

The UK has undoubtedly been one of the main driving forces behind FLEGT (Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade) the EU flagship programme to address illegal logging, including the Voluntary Partnership Agreement trade deals with timber producing countries and EU Timber Regulation (EUTR) to control illegal timber coming into EU market. This is the most innovative policy on tropical forests the EU has ever developed. This policy still needs strong support and it would be disastrous if the UK decided to end its backing and its political support for this programme and stopped implementing the EUTR.

The UK was also a strong ally in international negotiations about forest governance and wider intergovernmental policies that impact on forests, such as the present push for an EU Action Plan on Deforestation and forest Degradation. We can only hope they continue to work with NGO coalitions to achieve this. Without the UK, the EU will certainly lose impact in international negotiations on forest governance.

The UK has also been a large donor of development aid for forests, even though Germany and the Netherlands have been bigger over the last decade. Political change in the UK may mean a drastic lowering of the UK aid budget in general and to forests specifically.  

The biggest threat to forests both in and outside of the EU is climate change. The UK was a staunch supporter of a high climate target for 2030 and was one of the Member States actively working to ensure accounting for forest carbon remains separate from fossil fuel carbon (for more information see Fern’s new film Introducing LULUCF). It was the only country calling for an increase in the EU’s climate target if LULUCF were to be accounted for in the Effort Sharing Decision. It will now be up to progressive countries such as France and Germany to lead the way.

In terms of European forests, the impact will be more limited as decisions concerning forest management have always remained with Member States and the forest policy debate is dominated by forest rich countries. Brexit could even be positive for European forests as the UK has pushed for bioenergy policies that subsidise the over-supply of wood for energy.  

In general, the uncertainty and the time spent disentangling the UK from the EU will lead to many decisions being delayed. That is a negative impact we see already, which will specifically be felt in:

  • The Summer Package (including the Effort Sharing Decision and LULUCF, ratification of the Paris Agreement and decarbonisation of transport) which was due on 20 July. It will almost certainly be delayed until after the summer.
  • The bioenergy sustainability criteria due in the Winter Package (sometime in December). This will also almost certainly be delayed. The UK, as one of the biggest importers of pellets for electricity generation, was however unlikely to be an ally on this issue.

Time only will tell the full impact of the UK’s decision. Whatever the outcome, Fern will work harder than ever to make the EU’s policies and practices work for forests and forest peoples and encourage the UK to remain part of that.

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