The EU referendum, Brexit and the UK environment

The referendum was the defining issue of 2016. The Tyndall Centre convened a group of experts to clarify what was at stake for the UK’s environment. It produced impartial and salient knowledge, and worked closely with stakeholders to feed it into very fast moving policy processes. Its work underpinned NGO campaigns, culminating in the PM’s decision to campaign directly for environmental voters, and informed the work of Parliament. The very strength of the resulting evidence base is arguably why the environment was not more heavily contested during the referendum. The project is now directly informing the difficult choices around the delivery of Brexit.

David Cameron described the referendum as “one of the biggest decisions we will face in our lifetimes”. Yet polls revealed that UK voters were the least well informed in Europe on EU matters. Despite over 40 years of EU membership, there were very few people who fully appreciated the impact of the EU on UK environmental policy and governance, even within Whitehall and Parliament. When the Conservatives unexpectedly won the 2015 election, the demand for impartial and authoritative evidence to inform societal debate in a referendum suddenly rocketed. Had EU membership been good or bad for the UK environment? What might happen in the event of a vote to Remain or, more significantly, to Leave?

The environmental sector realized that it would be challenging to answer such questions in a highly politicized referendum setting, because: 1. The EU is complex – hence, how should it communicate, particularly with those favouring Leave? 2. EU membership is deeply contentious –hence, how could it avoid accusations of bias? 3. Laws limit political campaigning – should charities campaign?

The team anticipated and were well placed to respond to these urgent but complex knowledge needs. They had studied the EU for many decades and contributed to the Balance of Competence exercise led by the Cabinet Office. In 2013, Dr Burns was commissioned by Friends of the Earth to independently review the academic evidence. And in 2015, Prof. Jordan was appointed as a specialist advisor to the Environmental Audit Committee, which was keen to conduct a fast track inquiry.

In 2015-2016 the team worked with the Green Alliance, the charity coordinating the entire sector’s campaign strategy, to produce an authoritative expert review of the evidence (14 chapters covering multiple policy areas), an executive summary and an accompanying blog ( and twitter account to further disseminate the findings.

The team quickly encountered three challenges. The first concerned the complexity and breadth of the research to be summarized. They worked closely with the Green Alliance, the Environmental Audit Committee and environmental NGOs to ensure that the work was timely and salient. They convened a group of international experts in different areas of UK and EU environmental relations – to be sure the review would be sufficiently credible, impartial and systematic. The team selected experts that knew how to engage with policy makers and/or write for non-academic audiences – to ensure the findings were presented in a succinct and engaging manner.

The team initiated their work expecting a referendum in the Autumn. The announcement of a much earlier date (in June) meant they had to accelerate work; the team delivered the 60,000 word review in under 4 months. It was officially launched in early April 2016 at an event attended by the heads of the main NGOs. The team used the launch as a spring board into more society-wide discussions – and participated in public debates and town meetings across the country and in Brussels.  Individual authors made multiple media appearances (see blog for details) with the aim of 1) broadening the terms of the debate to encompass environmental issues; and 2) injecting impartial, evidence-based arguments.

The project was funded in a way that was independent of political influence.

The Expert Review was launched at an event in Westminster attended by senior NGOs, parliamentarians and civil servants. It was chaired by Matthew Spencer, the Director of the Green Alliance. Chief Executives of some of the largest NGOs praised it for its comprehensiveness and impartiality. It was downloaded 1900 times from the project website and secured extensive coverage in the media (The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Washington Post, ENDS etc.). Since then the team has written over 40 blogs and op-eds which together have attracted >55,000 reads.  The blog piece in The Environmentalist (a blog hosted by the Institute of Environmental Management - an international network of 15,000 professionals) on the day after the referendum is still the most widely read on IEMA’s website (>18,000 reads).

Our Expert Review is only the beginning. Since the vote the team has produced and launched an updated review (on Hard v. Soft Brexit), and have given written and oral evidence to the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Irish Assembly.

The group brings together a unique set of skills – expertise in specific environmental policy areas (such as planning and law), in UK and in EU governance. As such, its work is unique amongst other knowledge providers (the IEEP and the Environment Audit Committee for example) in being able to capture not only the breadth of the impacts on the UK, but also Brexit’s impact on the EU (a significant dimension once Article 50 is triggered). Moreover, the fact that the group was independently funded to inform rather than campaign for either side, gave its work added authority and impartiality.




Research areas