Don't panic, Brexit doesn't have to spell gloom for the environment
Amid all the other news happening right now, you might have missed a vital story: the government . This is the total amount of greenhouse gases which the UK economy will be allowed to emit in the 2028-30 period, which will now be cut by 57% on 1990 levels.
This would be important for the UK’s contribution to tackling climate change at any time. In the aftermath of the EU referendum campaign it takes on special significance, for it nails the myth that will tear up all of the UK’s environmental policies and commitments.
The environmental movement has been in visible despair since last week’s leave vote. That’s not surprising: most of the UK’s environmental laws and regulations spring from the EU, and environmentalists know that they would not have been nearly so strong if the UK parliament had acted on its own. Indeed, British governments have often tried to resist the EU’s push for stronger environmental protection. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Green Alliance were rightly vocal remain campaigners.
But now that the decision has been made, mimicking Fraser from Dad’s Army and crying that we’re all doomed is not what’s needed. On the contrary, it will merely encourage those who oppose environmental and climate policy to believe that they now have a new mandate to get rid of it.
It has not gone unnoticed that in the Venn diagram of the right there’s a lot of overlap between Brexiters, climate sceptics and anti-greens. Indeed, Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation has already claimed that following the referendum the UK should abandon its climate policies.
But the Brexit result provides absolutely no grounds for doing so, and the public and media should not be encouraged to believe that it does.
The UK’s climate change targets and policy derive, not from the EU, but from the 2008 Climate Change Act, passed by the sovereign UK Parliament with cross-party support. It is the act which requires the government to set legally-binding carbon budgets: indeed, the one just proposed is more ambitious than the targets set by the EU. Though , it has to be ratified in the UK parliament, so Brexit will not change our long-term decarbonisation goals.
It is true that on leaving the EU we will no longer be required to meet its renewable energy and energy efficiency targets. But we will still have to implement them, because they are part of our national climate and energy policies, aimed at meeting the three goals (decarbonisation, affordability and security of supply) set by the UK government, not the EU.
Investment in energy infrastructure will inevitably be subject to some general economic uncertainty, but the energy market is almost entirely domestic and not for export, so concerns over whether the UK will be in the EU single market do not apply. Many of these investments are now on hold – but that is nothing to do with Brexit and all to do with the lack of a long-term UK policy framework. Once the government announces a proper post-2020 support package, investment should begin flowing again.
Outside the climate and energy field, leaving the EU does not guarantee the loss of EU environmental regulation. If Brexit takes the form of the ‘Norway option’, in which we remain part of the European Economic Area (EEA) in order to gain access to the single market, almost all EU environmental regulation will continue to apply. EU law is designed to prevent lax environmental standards undercutting competition in the single market, so it’s all part of the package.
But even if we come out of the single market, key elements of EU environmental law will remain. Product regulations such as energy efficiency standards for white goods and emission limits for vehicles will not disappear, because most products sold in the UK will continue to be the same ones sold in the rest of .
And other EU regulations will remain in place because they have been transposed into British statute. Air pollution limits fall into this category: outside the EU we will lose the vital enforcement regime provided by European law, but the regulations themselves will remain. Yes, a . But politically it would surely be impossible to do so. With air pollution now estimated to lead to around , which politician is going to call for weakening the law?
And this, surely, is the point. Leaving the EU will unquestionably be bad for the environment, and is deeply to be regretted. In some fields, such as nature conservation (where the key directives do not apply to EEA members such as Norway), we should be particularly alarmed at the prospect of Brexit leading to the collapse of regulation. But the proper response to this is not to cry woe; it is to mobilise the public in support of environmental protection. This must now be the green movement’s overwhelming priority.
In the climate and energy field, where policy is domestically driven, the task is particularly urgent. It is to get the government to diminish investment uncertainty through a series of key announcements. Energy secretary Amber Rudd , but there is more to do.
First, post-2020 support for low-carbon energy must be included in the autumn statement. Second, the government should announce that the UK, and UK firms, will continue to belong to the European emissions trading scheme under any Brexit scenario. Third, the government should confirm that a new comprehensive climate action plan will be published by the end of the year showing how the government intends to meet the fifth carbon budget, including core policies for renewable energy and energy efficiency. Fourth, it should announce its intention to pass a new Air Quality Act to replace the EU-based provisions of current air pollution regulations.
There are many rightful reasons for despair at the referendum result. But the imminent destruction of the UK’s environmental policy need not be one of them. The country is experiencing a political earthquake. But we can still ensure that it does not pull down every house.
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