Life after Brexit; Will the UK Become the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’ Again?

ETA 23.00 pm March 29, 2019? Although the recent vote suggests that it might be postponed by several months, the long awaited Brexit will arrive upon us very soon. On Brexit day, the United Kingdom (UK) will exit the European Union (EU), which will end its economic and political partnership with the other 27 EU member countries (Hunt & Wheeler, 2019). The EU is in turmoil and both parties fear significant disruption to businesses and a long-term impact on their economies due to the loss of the free movement of services, capital and people, which is a cornerstone of the EU (“Free movement of”, n.d.). However, unlike the economic and social impacts of Brexit, the environmental impacts of it are hardly ever mentioned in the current debate. With Brexit, the UK does not only exit the current trade and migration regulation as determined by the EU, but also its environmental policy.  

Although the UK has drastically reduced its CO2 emissions the past decade, as shown in figure 1, it has not always acted this exemplary. In the 1970’s and 1980’s several NGO’s called the UK the “dirty man of Europe” because of its opposing stance towards creating a common European environmental policy. Fortunately, due to the leverage of the other member countries, the UK was forced to agree with the environmental regulations set up in 1990 and has been a front runner in climate policy ever since. However, the upcoming Brexit causes a group of leading environmentalists, the Environmentalists for Europe (E4E), to fear that the UK is at risk of becoming that “dirty man of Europe” once again (Vidal, 2016). So, what policies will not be legally binding for the UK anymore after Brexit and what energy targets are still likely to be met?

Figure 1: Actual and temperature adjusted greenhouse gas emissions (in MtCO2e) in the UK, Q1 2009 – Q4 2017 (“2017 Greenhouse Gas”, 2018)

Because of the establishment of the EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED) in 2009, the UK is required to generate up to 15% of its energy consumption through renewable energy sources in 2020 (Gosden, 2017). In 2014 the EU tried to expand this agreement by setting additional targets per country that cover the period up until 2030. The UK strongly resisted these extra binding targets, which resulted in the EU deciding to form a non-country specific agreement, where it was determined that CO2 emissions should be cut by at least 40% all over the EU relative to base year 1990 in 2030. After Brexit, these RED requirements will not apply to the UK anymore. However, this does not necessarily mean that the targets set by the RED will not be met. According to Green Match, an organisation monitoring the renewable energy trends in the UK, already 30% of the electricity generation in the UK was generated via renewables in the third quarter of 2017 (see figure 2 and 3). The initial RED requirements are thus already amply satisfied. Moreover, contracts for green energy projects are already outsourced, so building permits and subsidies that were distributed in order to meet the 2030 target cannot be retracted, making it more likely for the 2030 target to be met. Furthermore, the existence of the Climate Change Act (CCA), which obliges the UK to cut its carbon emissions by 80% relative to 1990 in 2050, ensures that many green targets will still be met (Gosden, 2017). This CCA was namely drafted by the British Parliament itself and Brexit will not affect the validity of this regulation. Carbon emission targets are thus not very likely to be at risk.

Figure 2: Share of electricity generation in the UK Q3 2017 (“Renewable Energy in”, 2019)

Figure 3: Evolution of Energy Generation over Time in the UK (Vaughan, 2019).

So, the carbon emissions reduction targets set up by the EU are likely to hold after Brexit. However, there are some other environmental problems that are susceptible to flare up again after March 29th, for example air pollution. In 2008, the Ambient Air Quality Directive was established by the EU. This directive established legally binding limits on the concentration of air polluters within EU countries (Marco & Xiao, 2013). The UK failed both the first (2010) and second (2015) deadline to reduce its NO2 concentrations below this set target. It is strongly expected that the UK will have illegally high NO2 levels by 2020 for which it was taken to the European Court of Justice (Gosden, 2017; “The Environmental Impact”, n.d.). After Brexit, the EU will be unable to legally enforce the current targets in the UK. It is therefore feared by many that the UK will discard the current agenda and regulations and will create its own time schedule for reducing air pollution. Unfortunately, the historical records of clean air policy in the UK does not suggest that these mitigation policies will be strict of rapid enough. One can only hope that awareness campaigns set up by the EU (e.g. see figure 4), will have landed with British citizens such that the parliament will act on it.

Figure 4: Clean air campaign (“The Environmental Impact”, n.d.)

All in all, it remains largely uncertain what the exact effect of Brexit will be on the UK’s environmental policy. It all depends on whether the UK will somehow still be able to form a deal with the EU or not and, if they do, which environmental laws would then still be binding. Either way, when the EU is not there to enforce policy anymore, it will all depend on the stance of British citizens whether environmental risks will turn into reality or not.  


2017 UK Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Provisional Figures. (2018, March 29). Retrieved March 13, 2019, from

Free movement of persons. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2019, from

Gosden, E. (2017, February 14). What will Brexit mean for the environment and Britain’s green targets? Retrieved March 13, 2019, from

Hunt, A., & Wheeler, B. (2019, January 31). Brexit: All you need to know about the UK leaving the EU. Retrieved March 13, 2019, from

Marco, G., & Xiao, B. (2013). Air Quality Legislation and Standards in the European Union: Background, Status and Public Participation. Advances in Climate Change Research,4(1), 50-59. doi:10.3724/sp.j.1248.2013.00050

Renewable Energy in the United Kingdom. (2019, February 5). Retrieved March 18, 2019, from

The Environmental Impact of Brexit. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2019, from

Vaughan, A. (2019, January 03). UK power stations’ electricity output lowest since 1994. Retrieved March 16, 2019, from

Vidal, J. (2016, February 03). Brexit would return Britain to being ‘dirty man of Europe’. Retrieved March 13, 2019, from

6 thoughts on “Life after Brexit; Will the UK Become the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’ Again?

  1. Thanks for the nice summary! It’s unfortunate that the carbon emissions will already be reduced and not non-GHG air pollutants, instead of the other way around. I believe all EU countries also signed the Paris Agreement separately, so after Brexit the UK would still have some obligations in regards to their carbon emissions. Hopefully the British citizens can indeed encourage compliance to the EU regulations after Brexit!


  2. Yes I fully agree! Although it is of course very positive that the carbon emissions target is likely to be met, given the current regulation it would have been better if it were the other way around since the Paris agreement already serves as a big stick. On a positive note, I do think that this is a good example of showing that regulation that is imposed by a country on itself can actually change environmental behaviour. From this blog you can see that the carbon emission target, which was largely set in the CCA created by the British parliament itself, is likely to be met, while the air pollution target, set by the EU, is not. So, what I am hoping for is that the British government itself will also impose strong regulation on air pollution in the future, such that both targets will be met at the end.


  3. Interesting blogpost! I had not thought about the fact that Brexit can have environmental consequences myself yet, so it was really interesting that you wrote about this topic.

    However, I would like to bring up another mechanism which will likely influence the UK’s future course of action on environmental policy. Specifically, after Brexit the UK will want to stay in good graces of the EU countries, for example since they currently have important economic ties with them and will want to set up new trade agreements with them. Abandoning environmental protection plans would cause the UK large reputational costs. And since reputational costs are actually an important factor in determining a states’ behaviour, this will likely influence the UK’s future environmental policy.

    Although it is true that the option of enforcement by the EU will no longer be an option after Brexit, it is also important to realize that enforcement by the EU is not a perfect system either. Namely, the EU has only limited monitoring options and thus cannot always check thoroughly if every member state complies with EU regulations. In addition, even if a country is found not to comply, it is very difficult to actually punish a country for non-compliance: it occurs regularly that a fine is being issued against an EU country for non-compliance and that that country simply refuses to pay this fine, in which case there is not much that can be done about this situation. Thus, although the enforcement by the EU option will no longer be available, we must not underestimate other factors influencing states behaviour such as reputation which will likely encourage the UK to stay on a green path.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That is a really interesting view and I think you are totally right. Although a lack of regulation can induce the UK to fully let go of its current environmental policy, we should not forget the power of social norms and reputation either. The whole Brexit chaos already makes the UK look pretty bad in the eyes of other (non-)EU countries, which makes the formation of new trade agreements very difficult for the UK. Rejecting all past EU regulation would not improve this relationship and would thus make the negotiation of new agreements only more difficult. So, my expectation is that the UK will not fully reject all of its current environmental policy. However, I also fear that social norms alone will not be enough and that in the case of expensive policy measures it will be too easy for the UK to discard them despite the damage to their reputation. This will not be the case for every target or policy, but even when they decide to reject a single policy, for example air pollution policy, it will have a severe effect on the climate. However, it would definitely be great if social norms and reputation turn out to be enough encouragement for the UK to stay green, so lets hope for that!


  5. Interesting post, I hadn’t thought yet about the environmental consequences of Brexit either!

    I am wondering how much UK’s concern about their reputation would actually in practice help them to stay on the green path. Wouldn’t it be quite easy for the UK to publicly state they will adhere to the environmental policies, but then just don’t? We have seen countries doing this multiple times. Like MARIACATHARINE said, it would be hard for countries to punish the UK for non-compliance, after trade agreements are already made. However, I hope you’re right of course and that they will act according to the policies!


  6. Yes I agree that it would be a possibility for the UK to publicly state a green stance and then not act on it, but I do think that the power of reputation (as MARIACATHARINE discussed above) should not be underestimated. Not only regarding other countries, but mostly regarding their reputation in the eyes of their own citizens. A country can mislead the public to a certain extent, but once citizens realize that this is the case it is often impossible for a democratic country to continue like that. So, I do not think it would be possible for the UK to act like this in the long term. This is indeed under the assumption that the British citizens will speak out if the UK acts like you suggested, because other EU member countries will have less influence of the UK’s behaviour (although I still think that the EU has enough means of pressure, such as sanctions etc, to elicit greener behaviour from the UK, given that the EU would care enough about the climate to confront a powerful ally like the UK). So, yes I do think that it is a possibility, but as I mentioned in the last sentence of my post, whether this actually happens or not all depends on the stance of the British citizens.


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