The UK successfully chaired COP26, took a constructive role in COP 27 after the PM had initially declined to attend and has until now been a strong voice globally and in Europe for ambitious net zero polices.
Before Brexit, UK Ministers and MEPs often helped to outvote backsliding EU member states and get green policies passed. Tackling climate change is by definition a team effort. The UK used to be a leader in that team and we need to be again. That means close cooperation with the EU – but working with the EU still has less impact than working within it.
The UK government has talked about Brexit enabling it to overtake the EU in climate policy. Instead, there have been signs of it joining the backsliders. Jacob Rees-Mogg, until recently responsible for energy, extolled fossil fuel and decried ‘climate alarmism’, despite the fact that more than 80 per cent of the public is ‘somewhat or very concerned’ about climate change.
Thankfully, Rishi Sunak overturned Liz Truss’s proposal to authorise fracking. But many voices on the Conservative backbenches and some in the government continue to oppose the UK’s commitment to net zero by 2050. Very often, those who hold such views are also arch-Brexiteers: the negotiator of disastrous hard Brexit, Lord David Frost, who has even denied that there is a climate emergency, is a case in point.
Even if the UK did go further in the right direction than the EU, the effect would be limited as climate change does not stop at borders. Weaker policies in Europe or elsewhere would still damage the UK. The UK’s influence is diminished now it is acting alone, while the EU is a huge global player.
All in all, climate change policy is a classic example of how the Brexit mantra of taking back control is an illusion. Taking back full theoretical control of the nature of domestic climate legislation has little practical effect because only collective European action can be effective in an interconnected world dominated by huge jurisdictions: the US, China…and the EU.
[YOUTUBE VIDEO GOES HERE - NEED LINK]
There are also fears that the government intends to water down other environmental legislation, in a desperate attempt to undercut EU competitors and to reach trade deals with far away countries. Some experts suggest the UK’s deal with Australia is already an example of this. EU membership provides safeguards against this kind of cynical short-termist policymaking.
Long-distance trade also has a far higher environmental cost than trade with our EU neighbours.
The government’s Retained EU Law Bill could lead to protections for wildlife, habitats and biodiversity being scrapped by UK Ministers without proper parliamentary scrutiny or simply falling out of the statute book as a result of reckless ‘sunset clauses’ scrapping EU-based laws en masse on a given date, without replacing them.
The government is also insisting that the UK will diverge from the EU’s global standard REACH scheme for chemical regulation. This presents risks both to the environment and to UK manufacturers’ capacity to export to the EU.
In general, the economic damage inflicted by Brexit is going to make it more difficult for UK governments to afford the upfront costs of prioritising environmentally friendly, renewable energy.
The current dumping of raw sewage around the UK’s coasts and in rivers is not a direct result of Brexit. Indeed, a number of EU countries – for example Poland in February 2022 and Spain in April 2022 - have been referred to the European Court of Justice over similar behaviour in recent years. The court ruled against the UK in 2017.
However, Brexit will make it more difficult to put this right, in three ways:
- Brexit means the UK is no longer bound by EU environmental regulations – though the Brexit deal continues to place some obligations on the UK - and has removed the ‘stick’ of the kind legal action by the EU mentioned above;
- The UK is less wealthy, making it more difficult to fund investment in our water system;
- Brexit has created supply chain problems and raised import costs, including for sewage treatment materials – this was a major factor in sewage dumping earlier in 2022, though more recent dumping has been caused by the infrastructure’s inability to deal with sudden heavy rainfall after a period of drought, long before the sewage reaches treatment plants.
The UK – with many other Member States – was also referred to the Court over air pollution levels. As with sewage, the UK is now no longer subject to EU sanctions, which have proved to be a deterrent – albeit only partially effective – to persistent offending.