What does Brexit mean for climate change?

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Whether you voted for it or not, Brexit now seems inevitable. But what does this actually mean, for the average person and for the country? Given the lack of clear direction indicated by the government, it is understandable if you’re confused trying to keep up. In this blog we will try and identify the concrete consequences of the vote across a range of topics, so that you can better understand the evolving situation. What does Brexit mean…

…Climate Change?

Environmental activists and eco-minded voters, from the Green Party to the pressure groups Environmentalists for Europe and Scientists for Europe, sided for Remain – with a few exceptions – in the EU Referendum. In the current climate of uncertainty, there are already some signs they might have been right.

The Big Picture

Despite the Prime Minister’s refrain that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, no one knows what Brexit itself means, let alone what it means for the environment. However, Theresa May’s decision to scrap the Department for Energy and Climate Change has been widely perceived as a hint that a shift in environmental policy may follow, once EU regulations will have ceased to bind the UK to strict environmental standards.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change was established by Gordon Brown’s Labour government in autumn 2008, to implement the Climate Change Act which Parliament passed at the time. Its aims framed by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the Department was responsible for curbing greenhouse gases emissions and expanding the UK’s reliance on renewable sources of energy. Its competencies have now been merged into a new Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy – a decision described as ‘plain stupid’ by Ed Miliband (who was Secretary for Energy and Climate Change from 2008 to 2010) and ‘shocking’ by Friends of the Earth chair Craig Bennett.

Greg Clark, the new Secretary for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, who has previous experience working on the Government’s Low Carbon Agenda, has been careful to list climate change action among the foremost goals of his new Department, and the government has confirmed that previously agreed emissions’ targets are not up for discussion.

This is not to say there are no reasons to worry. As of today, no cabinet minister is exclusively responsible for the UK’s climate change action: Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, is also responsible for Agriculture and Rural Affairs, which promises to be one of the hottest topics in the upcoming negotiations, and Clark will have to think about Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy on top of Climate issues. In Brexit Britain, where the economy is likely to need that extra bit of attention, can we be sure that climate change action will stay on top of Clark’s agenda?

The absence of a cabinet voice for climate might be particularly significant as Nick Timothy, one of Theresa May’s two chiefs of staff, has gone on record in the past calling the Climate Change Act ‘a monstrous act of self-harm’, and the Financial Times credit him with being opposed to green taxes. His influence on our new Prime Minister is well known, and it might go relatively unchecked in the new cabinet.

Potential impact

Nothing has changed yet, as the UK remains a member of the EU and Parliament is in summer recess. Whether anything will change is a matter of discussion, and of lobbying. Whilst Environmentalists for Europe have vowed to fight to preserve all the environmental safeguards currently in place, would-be imitators of the successful Leave campaign have launched an international bid for a ‘Clexit’ – i.e. an end to global climate change action.

Both camps have scope for action, as the task of ratifying the 2015 Paris Agreement is on the agenda of the current government. The EU has played a key role in negotiating the Agreement, working with and sometimes on behalf of its 28 Member States, and now plans to ensure all Member States ratify it. Whether this ratification process will be launched before or after the UK’s formal withdrawal from the EU, and whether it will include the UK or not, is as of yet unclear.

We should not underestimate the potential impact of Brexit on continental climate policy either. The UK, traditionally a supporter of liberalism and market-based approaches, has been instrumental in setting up the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, the largest such scheme in the world. After its withdrawal, policy in the rest of the EU might shift towards more institutional, rather than market, action. Whilst the merits of either approach are a matter of debate, what is sure is that the interests of British industries will not be voiced at the EU table anymore – even though those industries might still be partners to the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, if Brexit Britain opts for the Norway model for instance.

Reflections

As with many of the impacts of the EU referendum result, it is too early to say much, and this piece is a – hopefully balanced – assessment of various possible consequences Brexit may have on climate change action. It is not too early, however, to get involved and make your voice heard! If climate change is as much of a priority for you as it is for us, start telling decision-makers loud and clear from today – there are plenty of groups out there who will welcome your support.