There are risks to the environment from Brexit but, as Matthew Farrow explains, some causes for optimism too as the UK prepares to leave the EU.
I well remember the fury and panic that flooded the environmental twittersphere around 4am on 24 June 2016. It was dawning that the UK had voted to leave the European Union and 40 years of environmental laws being largely determined by the progressively minded EU could be coming to an end.
Inevitably and rightly in the four years since there has been a great deal of lobbying to try to ensure that our post-Brexit regulations and trade deals do not undermine environmental standards. And, as we hurtle towards the Brexit end date of 31 December, there is renewed focus by the environmental lobby on the risks ahead – the latest issue being the delayed environment bill and its potential weaknesses.
There are some important issues at stake in this debate but it’s worth considering some of the less talked about consequences of Brexit on the green agenda.
One of things I’ve noticed is how it has made the green groups a more cohesive force. Historically, there was an element of friendly or unfriendly competition for profile, members, corporate engagement etc. But the threat of Brexit has led to much more joint working and formal and informal coalitions across different topics and I think this is something that’s here to stay.
Secondly, a green Brexit agenda proved the salvation of Michael Gove, as it allowed him to rebuild his career. After his disastrous attempt to knife Boris in the back during the 2016 leadership election he looked finished as a political force. While Theresa May gave him the Defra role, very few secretaries of state in the last ten years have emerged from that department with their reputations enhanced or even intact. Yet the fact that Brexit meant a chance to rewrite green regulations from the bottom up, gave Gove the intellectual space to reinvent himself as an eco-champion and a minister able to reshape the agenda.
Third, the opportunity to rewrite the Common Agricultural Policy system and replace it through the Agriculture Bill with a more sophisticated attempt to reward farmers for environmental public goods will create a huge new market in carbon offsetting. All those in charge of projects they have promised to make net zero will be pouring money into the offsetting market, allowing much of the farming industry to change its business models to be the providers of nature-based carbon capture and storage.
Lastly, while the threat of Brexit leading to a dilution of environmental standards has always been a real one, it has also freed up space for the green policy community to think more creatively. At EIC for example we have argued that the Canadian system of requiring ‘continuous improvement’ in air pollution has advantages over the rigid emission limit value system used by the EU.
None of this is to minimise the environmental risks of Brexit. But it does at least show the truth of the old adage that for every cloud there is a silver lining.
Matthew Farrow is Director of Policy at EIC. This blog originally appeared as a comment piece in November’s edition of Infrastructure Intelligence.