Britain did not vote to leave the European Union for worse air pollution or a degraded natural environment. In fact, climate and environmental issues barely featured in the referendum campaign at all. But, nearly a year after the Brexit vote, the United Kingdom’s climate and environment policies have become a source of both controversy and uncertainty.
The UK has long seen itself as a global leader on climate change. The government has publicly committed “to ensuring we become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.”
But on paper, nothing has changed.
Even after the Brexit vote, the UK legislated carbon targets for 2030 that are more ambitious than the rest of the European Union, and clean energy technologies feature strongly in the UK’s new industrial strategy.
This leadership position is now under threat, as the confusion and complexity of leaving the EU upends the political landscape. Much of UK environmental regulation is sourced directly from EU law. The current UK government plan is to transfer all existing EU rules into domestic British legislation, to maintain policy stability and avoid regulatory gaps emerging after leaving the EU.
Opponents of environmental regulation, however, sense an opportunity. A small but influential group that includes Brexit activists, Conservative politicians and media outlets, such as The Telegraph, have initiated a campaign calling for a “bonfire of EU red tape.” However, most of the regulations they want to see cut are not red but green: renewable energy rules that support the expansion of solar and wind power; energy efficiency product standards requiring kettles and vacuum cleaners to use less electricity; and habitat conservation rules that protect rare species. These campaigners see cutting environmental rules and social standards as a route to rebooting the UK economy after Brexit and gaining competitive advantage over other neighbouring economies.
Ironically, ditching EU environmental rules could be worse for UK competitiveness than retaining them, as Britain seeks to negotiate a new trade deal with the EU. Calls for deregulation have worried the UK’s former European partners, who fear a race to the bottom could undercut the EU’s own environment rules. Many environmental issues are also cross-border: If the UK rolls back air quality standards for factories and power stations, citizens in Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam will breathe in the resulting pollution on top of those in London.
As a result, maintaining environmental standards will be a key condition for the future UK-EU trade deal. The consensus of the European Union’s 27 heads of state calls for avoiding “environmental dumping” – or watering down environmental regulation in order to achieve an unfair trade advantage. The European Parliament explicitly says a future agreement with the UK is conditional on standards on climate and environment continuing to be met.
Beyond trade, there is also appetite for deeper climate and environmental cooperation to continue even after the UK has successfully “brexited”. Many European governments would like the UK to stay as part of the EU climate regime – otherwise other EU countries would need to recalculate, and potentially increase, their climate commitments. If the UK and EU continue to join forces at United Nations climate summits, their voices will be stronger than if each negotiates alone. Clean energy research and development, product standards and developing offshore electricity grids are seen as major areas for future cooperation.
But the messy politics of Brexit get in the way again. The Brexit negotiations will start by focusing on citizens’ rights, unpaid bills and the complex status of Northern Ireland; talks about the future relationship of energy, climate and the environment will have to wait until these contentious issues are resolved.
And while all sides recognise the mutual benefits of the UK continuing to participate in EU carbon and energy markets, EU leaders are keen to avoid Britain “cherry-picking” certain sectors of the single market as it leaves, to protect the integrity of EU rules. This means that carving out special deals on clean-energy trading or environmental goods and services will prove more difficult than expected.
As Brexit negotiations begin in earnest in a few weeks’ time, the scale of the political, diplomatic and regulatory challenges ahead is only now becoming apparent. Strong policies on climate and the environment are in the interests of both the UK and EU. They must not be left to become collateral damage in a difficult divorce.
Jonathan Gaventa is a Director of E3G, a leading European environmental think tank. He leads E3G’s work on decarbonising the European energy system, with a focus on infrastructure and clean technologies. A UK citizen, Jonathan is based in Brussels.
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