The Brexit vote last Thursday started what could be an unprecedented decision within the European Union and its members. The UK’s population spoke for a future outside the EU, and the consequences are being felt all over the world. The results of last week’s referendum left an uncertainty veil as climate experts are more and more concerned.
The Brexit will affect environmental policies at the national and at the international level, impacting mostly the road towards net zero emissions goal.
The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change has reassured that there will be no immediate consequences after the Brexit vote, as the government will still have to comply with the provision under the 2008 Climate Act. Thanks to this law, the UK has had higher ambitions than its European counterparts. British advisers will now have more ground to push for a 57% emissions reduction by 2030.
However, other policies, especially concerning energy, could be seriously affected depending on who the new leader of the Conservative Party will be. For instance, if Boris Johnson steps up, the overall picture for stricter policies for environmental protection, emission reductions, and renewable energy investment does not look promising. The former mayor of London and leading conservative candidate for prime minister is also known for being a climate change sceptic. In one of his op-ed columns, Johnson said that the sun is the sole cause for global warming, openly ridiculing the 97% of scientists who believe that climate change has an anthropogenic cause. Other candidates including Theresa May, Sajid Javid and Liam Fox have generally steered clear of climate change, and Michael Gove stands accused of trying to wipe climate change off the national curriculum.
Another aspect to take into consideration is that the UK will have to reframe its international climate commitments outside the EU, including emission reduction under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the recent Paris agreement. The UK would also need to submit its own Nationally Determined Contribution in respect of its intended climate actions under the UNFCCC processes. The UK has yet to ratify the Paris Agreement, and a climate sceptic leader might have the choice of not doing it.
But before anything, the government needs to bring in a stability message. Businesses, charities, and environmentalist groups are calling for the government to keep its promises for a new energy plan. This will be essential for the UK if it wants to attract private investment for the energy efficiency and clean energy technology and infrastructure.
In a poll conducted by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) before the referendum, 82% out of 4,000 environment and sustainability professionals believe that operating within the EU provides a policy landscape that is more stable and therefore potentially more effective for both businesses and the environment over the medium to longer term. As the Union brought stability, the UK also played a leadership role in shaping the environmental ambitions of the Union. Britain was pushing for an increase in the 2030 emission cuts targets, to go from the current 40% to a stronger 50%. In the medium and in the long terms, the EU will lose its second largest economy and key driver of the region’s low carbon policy.
The UK has become cluster for global green finance, and hi-tech companies who are developing energy efficient devices. These companies rely on manpower not only from the UK but also from Europe, and what they fear is they are not only going to run short on talent, but also on investment and markets.
On the other hand, this leave vote could also affect UK’s contribution to climate financing. Historically, the UK has been one of the more generous international donors, meeting a target to deliver 0.7% of national income as overseas development aid. But many Brexiteers – including Boris Johnson – object to the ring-fencing of official development assistance.
On the “bright” side, according to the International Growth Centre of the London School of Economics, the economic scene after the Brexit could be comparable to a UK recession, which should also reduce greenhouse gases emissions. In the 2008-09 economic crisis emissions fell 1.4%.
The democratic process of last Thursday, this deafening vox populi, has shaken the very insides of the United Kingdom, let alone the European Union. This will certainly reshape the geopolitics, however, this Brexit vote does not change the climate crisis.
The leave vote, as unprecedented as it is, sets a scary milestone, fuelling right-wing parties around Europe to also carry out proposals that could fracture even further the delicate equilibrium within the EU. The lack of a unified EU will undermine the efforts for a climate consensus and ambitious targets for the Paris Agreement.
It is unclear how long or what shape the process to leave the EU will take. In the meantime, the UK remain a legal limbo with disputed leaderships. Sadly, climate change and environmental protection are not part of the discourse of the next leaders, and if the economic shocks worsen, more attacks on the climate policy can be expected.
- IMEA (2016), Environment & Sustainability Professionals Reveal Top 10 Views on “Brexit”, available at: http://www.iema.net/news/news/2016/06/22/environment-and-sustainability-professionals-reveal-top-10-views-on-%E2%80%9Cbrexit%E2%80%9D/ (Accessed: 26th June 2016)
- Climate Home (2016), UK votes to leave EU, fears grow for climate ambition, available at: http://www.climatechangenews.com/2016/06/24/uk-votes-to-leave-eu-fears-grow-for-climate-ambition/ (Accessed: 26th June 2016)
- Business Insider (2016), Brexit could have terrible consequences for the future of the planet, available at: http://uk.businessinsider.com/britain-climate-change-threat-eu-brexit-2016-6?amp?r=US&IR=T (Accessed: 26th June 2016)
- The Guardian (2016), EU out vote puts UK commitment to Paris climate agreement in doubt, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jun/25/eu-out-vote-puts-uk-commitment-to-paris-climate-agreement-in-doubt (Accessed: 26th June 2016)
- The Washington Post (2016), How Brexit could hurt progress in fighting cliamate change and saving the planet, available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/06/24/how-brexit-could-hurt-progress-on-fighting-climate-change-and-saving-the-planet/ (Accessed: 26th June 2016)