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Opportunity or a Loss? A Look into the UK’s Post-Brexit Climate Change Policy

Post-Brexit Policy

As of writing this article, it has been two full weeks since the UK officially left the European Union on the 31st of December, 2020. The deal, which came out of years of debate and discussion has been scrutinised and picked apart, so let’s take a closer look at how the UK’s climate policy could fare after Brexit.

The EU has long been heralded as having some of the most extensive and impactful environment regulation of any international organisation. Connecting these standards to free trade and other aspects of individual member state legislation has helped multiple countries collectively and individually address many environmental issues, which is especially important now as temperatures continue to rise. In particular, the UK has performed a vital role in contributing to setting targets and in ensuring decisive EU climate action, especially in relation to schemes like the EU ETS (discussed in this Talk About article). It has helped prevent over 200 million tonnes of carbon from being released between 2005 and 2015.

EU ETS Scheme and Financial Incentives

The UK has continued to state that it will uphold its 2050 target of net-zero. However, it has also chosen to leave the EU ETS scheme – despite Brussels offering it as a part of negotiations – along with the established EU systems for legislation and monitoring environmental laws through the European Commission and the European Environment Agency. This has been the UK’s primary policy-oriented tool for fighting climate change and providing solid ground for its targets. The justification for leaving the EU ETS scheme has primarily been to abandon the EU’s energy targets that were much lower than they could be, since they were “weighed down” by coal-dependent (and high emitting) countries in Eastern Europe. According to Boris Johnson, leaving the EU ETS scheme, along with other EU-led initiatives, secures “legislative and regulatory freedoms” and allows the UK to have more extensive and effective goals, aiming above the EU level. This is especially pertinent as the UK is now an independent entrant into the Paris Agreement. These aspirations correspond with what some commentators refer to as a “green Brexit” which emphasise ambitious climate goals, free from Brussel’s influence and local production. 

However, this has also meant a loss of the EU’s financial incentives and a collective push towards climate mitigation and resilience. In particular, financially from the European Structural and Investment Funds along with access to environmental expertise and research and development. Much is lost in the more immediate sense in terms of what is effective on a collective level instead of individualised interests that may be swayed by politics instead of the environment’s needs. Keeping an eye on how these promises materialise will be an interesting way to see how the UK continues and expands upon its 2050 net-zero goals, especially because Brexit will not have the same impact (climate change policy-wise) on the EU. 

Future of UK Policy

While this is still early days, we can speculate what the future of this government (and the next, if it is different) could be in the face of Brexit and whether these promises of a “green Brexit” might be successful. A recent IPPR report emphasised that while there was a significant amount of talk around environmental protection, there has been a watering-down of environmental protections. For instance, at the start of the year, the UK ETS replaced the EU ETS system, following much of the same patterns as its predecessor, focussing on energy-intensive systems like aviation and power generation. However, many from the EU side have been sceptical of its success and had advised a carbon taxing route since it would be more impactful on a relatively smaller area. While the programme intends to help alleviate some of the EU ETS scheme’s problems (primarily around somewhat stagnant carbon prices), many have claimed that the EU ETS scheme still had an impact since it was covering a significant area. The UK ETS scheme (based on details at the time of writing) has not announced plans to connect to the EU ETS scheme or any other, which means that it would be limited to fewer businesses, confined to the UK borders. China, South Korea and New Zealand are all countries with the potential for being trading partners since they are beginning to trial these out, however, EU ETS remains the most significant scheme to partner with. However, this is something that we need to wait and see to fully understand what the future of the UK ETS could be.

Another critical factor to consider is the impact on trade, especially with the EU. EU internal market regulation has placed heavy emphasis on environmental protections for the freedom of movement, even between member states, but especially on exports. To maintain trade with the EU, the UK likely has to maintain these environmental standards on goods (which it was previously obligated to do so). However, as trade with other nations with less stringent environmental protections (such as the US) becomes increasingly important, some feel that this might lead to a lowering of protections for the sake of a better trade deal and profit. 

The last thing to consider is the shift from EU led organisations to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and, most likely, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). In particular, DEFRA has seen a steady decline in its budget and will now have to undertake the task of adapting and modifying EU governance within the UK context. This could take a significant amount of time and budget, especially in an economic downturn, likely leading to a ‘governance gap’ of the EU’s established systems, leading a lot of blank space for the UK to either vastly expand or retract from environmental policy.

In conclusion, the UK’s environmental policy post Brexit is a space to watch. While separating from the EU has meant a loss in Research & Development, funding and some regulation, it has equally created space and opportunity for the UK to vastly expand on its climate goals and continue to be a climate leader, especially as climate change continues to be an issue that needs immediate attention.

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