What Brexit Means for Action on Climate Change?

By: Martha Molfetas

Today, the world woke to news that the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. It shocked markets across the globe, which in turn could harm clean energy investments. This decision will continue to have far reaching repercussions for European and global economies, human rights agreements, peace treaties with Northern Ireland, and our climate, among other fragile arenas.

As a member of the European Union, the UK was committed to the EU 2020 climate commitments agreed to in Bonn in 2014. That agreement set Europe on the path towards becoming a clean energy powerhouse while simultaneously cutting oil, gas, and coal subsidies. It also made the EU take actions towards climate resiliency and mitigation efforts. The UK may drop or maintain those EU 2020 commitments, since many policies and incentives are currently in motion. But now that the UK has resigned itself, future EU 2030 climate policies will loose a key player, potentially giving leverage to coal producing nations like Poland. Not to mention, there’s a host of EU laws relating to pollution and environmental protections that the UK will no longer have to follow.

Right now, those EU environmental laws protect some 40,000 people in the UK who are at risk of dying early from pollution each year. Those EU laws have forced the UK to take care of their sewage laced beaches, and protect wildlife. All of these measures and protections are now at risk. There is some good news – 10 cities in the UK are a part of the Compact of Mayors, which has just launched a global coalition to take action on climate change. However, this initiative alone is not enough to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

In December, David Cameron’s government pledged to join the Paris Agreement, but what if Cameron doesn’t fulfill his pledge before he leaves, and Nigel Farage disengages from the Agreement entirely? With the present upheaval in the Conservative party, it is highly likely that long-time climate denier, Nigel Farage, will become the next Prime Minister and Conservative Party leader. Should Farage be at the helm of British governance, we can expect further cuts to clean energy and energy efficiency measures; increased subsidies for coal, oil, and gas; and for the UK to disengage from the Paris Agreement.

The news today marks a withdrawal from key policies and actions that have made Europe a leader in environmental law, policy, and climate action; and a potential withdrawal from the historic Paris Agreement. What direction the UK takes next is unclear, but it will likely take a large step away from climate action and clean energy potential. No one really knows right now what this vote will mean for present environmental protections and future climate actions. So much will depend on who leads the UK after the dust settles and what EU measures they decide to keep or throw out. There is so much at stake, and so much opportunity for serious action within the EU-block. All we know for sure is that there’s now an empty seat at the grown-ups table, and there is little reassurance that all these environmental hallmarks of the last 30 years will stay around in the UK of tomorrow.



Image from: Friends of Europe