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 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/695930/2017_Provisional_Emissions_statistics_2.pdf
Free movement of persons. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2019, from http://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/147/free-movement-of-persons
Gosden, E. (2017, February 14). What will Brexit mean for the environment and Britain’s green targets? Retrieved March 13, 2019, from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/0/what-would-brexit-mean-for-britains-green-targets/
Hunt, A., & Wheeler, B. (2019, January 31). Brexit: All you need to know about the UK leaving the EU. Retrieved March 13, 2019, from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-32810887
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 https://www.greenmatch.co.uk/blog/2018/03/renewable-energy-in-the-united-kingdom
The Environmental Impact of Brexit. (n.d.). Retrieved March 13, 2019, from https://www.sustaineurope.com/the-environmental-impact-of-brexit.html
Vaughan, A. (2019, January 03). UK power stations’ electricity output lowest since 1994. Retrieved March 16, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/03/uk-power-stations-electricity-output-lowest-1994-renewables-record
Vidal, J. (2016, February 03). Brexit would return Britain to being ‘dirty man of Europe’. Retrieved March 13, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/03/brexit-would-return-britain-to-being-dirty-man-of-europe