Gove’s ‘green’ Brexit will be hard to achieve

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Britain's Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove arrives at a cabinet meeting in London, Britain, 12 June 2017. [Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA]

On top of weakening environmental protection in the UK, a hard Brexit would strengthen the influence of the EU’s climate sceptic governments and undermine the bloc’s commitments at home and abroad, writes Joseph Curtin.

Joseph Curtin is a research fellow for climate policy at the Institute of International and European Affairs and a member of the Irish government’s Climate Change Advisory Council. This analysis is based on an IIEA policy brief. Opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

UK Environment Minister Michael Gove has promised a “Green Brexit”, and stated that he “deeply regrets” President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Minister Gove’s desired Brexit pigmentation, however, may be challenging to achieve. The UK’s departure from the EU could have a profoundly destabilising impact on global momentum to address climate change; and the harder the Brexit, the greater the magnitude of these repercussions.

The negative consequences ripple out from the loss of UK influence at the EU negotiating table. The EU has traditionally offered leadership in global efforts to address climate change, and together with China is the glue holding the increasingly fragile Paris Agreement together.

Within the EU, the UK has historically been a key engine of strong climate policy, aligning itself to the green grouping of member states. It has taken on more than its fair share of the collectively agreed EU decarbonisation objectives, and is pencilled in for a significantly above-average share to the EU’s pledge to the Paris Agreement.

The UK has also been a strong supporter of the EU’s flagship climate policy, its Emissions Trading System (ETS). The ETS has flagged badly in recent years, and the UK has been the prime advocate of reform. The so-called Visegrad grouping of Eastern European countries, led by Poland, has frequently opposed the UK’s climate ambition and its reforming agenda.

The ‘hardness’ of the final Brexit will determine the magnitude of the repercussions for environmental and climate protection. In a soft Brexit scenario, where the UK chooses to remain in the EU’s single market, membership of EU’s Emissions Trading System would likely be retained. However, the UK would withdraw from the collective EU approach to agreeing and sharing climate targets. This would remove UK influence at EU negotiations, tilting the balance of power towards the less ambitious grouping of member states.

In a so-called hard Brexit, where the UK leaves the single market and the customs union, the UK would likely also withdraw from the ETS, and its influence on the EU’s climate policy would therefore be further diminished. This could undercut the EU’s climate ambition by tilting the balance of power to less ambitious Member States.

In these scenarios, it would no longer be possible for the EU to achieve its pledge to the Paris Agreement, to reduce emissions 40% by 2030. The EU may have to revise downward its commitment to make up for the loss of the UK’s ambition.

None of these concerns were addressed by Mr. Gove. His speech was focused on ruling out what could be described as an ultra-hard Brexit – where the UK seeks to gain competitive advantage through deregulation following a hard Brexit.

There are some 650 pieces of EU legislation currently protecting the UK environment in the areas such as climate, water, air quality, biodiversity and waste. A key perceived opportunity from Brexit, and part of its inherent driving logic, is cutting some of this EU “red tape”. There were no specific commitments in Mr. Gove’s speech to retain any of these safeguards. An ultra-hard Brexit can be achieved simply by failing to transpose some or all of these EU protections into UK law.

Cutting climate regulations, such as environmental standards for buildings, cars, and appliances, is a clarion call for many in the Brexit camp, and might prove too tempting to resist. The UK’s climate ambition is underpinned by domestic legislation, most notably the UK Climate Change Act, and is not a function of EU Membership per se. However, in an ultra-hard Brexit scenario, who can guarantee that it might not also be threatened?

In most policy spheres, the UK will be disproportionally negatively affected by its decision to leave the EU, be it in trade, foreign policy or security. However, when it comes to climate change, under most Brexit scenarios the most profoundly negative consequence may not felt by the UK, but by the EU and internationally.

The only scenario where there are no negative or destabilising forces for climate protection is where the UK’s decision to leave the EU is reversed. This could arise as the full economic, political and regulatory implications become clearer over the coming year, and the fallacy of having one’s cake while also eating it is further exposed.