Opinion: What will ‘Brexit’ mean for the fight against climate change in the UK?

By Jon Crooks
The collective action of the EU has been important in building support and setting targets overall, but let’s not forget that the UK’s specific climate change targets derive not from the EU, but from the 2008 Climate Change Act, which was passed by the UK Parliament with cross-party support. This is the act which requires the government to set legally-binding carbon budgets.
The most recent of these carbon budgets required action by the end of June, so it may come as a surprise to some that amid all the events that followed the EU Referendum on 23 June, the UK Government, just one week later, passed into law an ambitious new carbon budget, accepting the Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) recommendation.
This budget, which is the ‘fifth carbon budget’, represents the total amount of greenhouse gases which the UK economy will be allowed to emit in the period 2028 to 2032 and would limit annual emissions to an average 57% below 1990 levels. This is a more ambitious target than the EU’s target for the same period.
As Michael Jacobs, visiting professor at the Grantham Research Institute on climate change and the environment at the London School of Economics, has said in a recent article:
“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 Brexit will tear up all of the UK’s environmental policies and commitments.”
It is true that the UK’s renewable energy targets were agreed in Brussels, but even if our future relationship with the EU does not require us to meet these targets, we will still have to implement them, because they are part of our national climate and energy policies set by the UK government and the Brexit result provides no grounds for rowing back on such commitments.
Similarly, the UK signed the Paris Agreement as part of the EU, but it has to be ratified by the UK Parliament, so Brexit will not change anything, except that we will now need to provide our own national targets under the agreement, rather than being part of the EU ‘burden-sharing’ arrangement, but this could mean we can be more ambitious and could also mean that the EU must do more to make up for our absence since we were to take a leadership role in the ‘burden-sharing’, yet to be worked out in detail, agreement.
Targets are all very well mind, but we need effective policies to achieve them and you could argue that we know the damage that economic emergencies do to UK climate policies, as we’ve seen over the last 12 months, where austerity, borne out of the last recession, led the new Conservative government to slash a number of green policies, such as energy efficiency, renewable energy and zero carbon homes.
The further downturn in financial markets being seen now as a result of the Brexit vote may impact the huge investments needed to transition us to a clean energy future, as the announcement by Siemens to freeze new UK wind power investment following the Brexit vote illustrated. With ageing, dirty power plants closing down, the UK needs to invest about £20bn a year between now and 2020, according to the National Infrastructure Commission, making up 60% of all infrastructure spending.
The question is whether this period of general economic uncertainty will be long-lasting and will it really cause serious damage to the investment in energy infrastructure needed? In this respect, Michael Jacobs, who was a previous adviser to Gordon Brown’s government, points out:
“…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 were already on hold – but that has 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 to flow again.”
Of course, much will now depend on who picks up the reigns in government. But certainly, the previously drawn parallels between the outspoken views of some of the Brexiters, such as Nigel Farage and Nigel Lawson, are no longer constructive. We know they won’t play a meaningful part in any future government.
In fact, we now know that the next Prime Minister will be either Theresa May or Angela Leadstrom. Whilst the Home Secretary doesn’t have the best record in terms of how she has voted in Westminster on issues of climate change (largely not turning up for key votes), there is nothing specific to suggest that she doesn’t recognise the importance of meeting our climate change commitments.
In Andrea Leadsom, we have a politician who had to ask whether climate change was real when she took up the post of Energy Minister, but we can rest assured that she is now ‘completely persuaded’. Sadly though she appears to be a strong supporter of fracking and in the past has written to the Prime Minister calling for cuts to wind farm subsidies and criticised the former Labour government for signing up to an EU target calling for 15 per cent of UK energy from renewables by 2015.
She has at least recently vowed to continue with the UK’s climate commitments, saying:
“The UK’s climate change act was passed by a majority of 463 votes to three. That is really quite extraordinary. The will of parliament has rarely been expressed so strongly and unambiguously.”
Unfortunately, she ‘made no apology’ for the cuts in incentives for renewable energy that the current government has made and said the market would decide the UK’s future energy supply.
Whatever happens, the government should not be given the opportunity to suggest that the Brexit vote has thrown our climate policies into doubt or that leaving the EU could make it harder to tackle climate change. As the CCC stated last week, uncertainty over climate policy has delayed projects and increased costs even before the Brexit vote.
In terms of any deal to eventually be negotiated with the EU, this should aim to secure access, like Norway, to Europe’s Internal Energy Market (IEM). The National Grid has issued a warning that energy bills would rise and energy security would fall if, like Switzerland, the UK was excluded from Europe’s IEM. More importantly, we need access to the IEM to even out the bumps that come with more renewable energy in our energy mix.
Before we get to that, the government can act decisively to diminish investment uncertainty through a series of key announcements before the end of the year, including support for renewable energy, which could be included in the autumn statement. The government should also announce that the UK, and UK businesses, will continue to belong to the European emissions trading scheme (ETS).
Crucially, the government needs to publish a new comprehensive climate action plan by the end of the year showing how we intend to meet the fifth carbon budget, including core policies for renewable energy and energy efficiency. That will give the UK economy and specifically, the green economy, the boost it needs.
Originally published on The Green Economy.
Jon Crooks is a writer and political and environmental campaigner. 
Also by Jon:

Opinion: A global shift to 100% renewables is within sight

Opinion: Climate change, conflict and a growing refugee crisis: the future is here!

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Categories: Brexit, EU, UK climate policy

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