What will Brexit mean for UK climate action?

Our research reveals that the UK is at risk of letting climate change slip off the agenda at a time when attention and action has never been as important

With the ‘Brexit day’ deadline, at the end of March 2019, rapidly approaching, many are still puzzling over what exiting the European Union (EU) will actually mean for the UK. One important and yet underreported policy area is that of climate action. With Northern Ireland and trade dominating public and political debate, the UK’s post-Brexit climate action is sleep-walking to diminution.

The UK joined the Union with the reputation of being the ‘dirty man of Europe’ due to its environmental record. Nevertheless, despite being the Union’s long-standing ‘awkward partner’, the UK and the EU have had a surprisingly productive relationship driving forward climate policy. The UK provided leadership in the development of the EU’s 2020 climate and energy targets and the package of legislation that supports them. It was the only EU country to adopt higher Kyoto targets. It also led the EU with the creation of the national Climate Change Act in 2008 (CCA), demonstrating that EU Member States could lead the world by example with policies to tackle environmental catastrophe.

However, the history of the UK has not been a story of an entirely successful climate conscience. The UK has earned the reputation of being a ‘paradoxical leader’, with targets quietly dropped when success looked unlikely and rhetoric repeatedly outperforming reality. This chequered record goes some way to explain contemporary concern.

The UK government, or at least some senior actors within it, have been keen to counteract that concern. The narrative of a ‘Green Brexit’, one wherein the UK can actually outperform its EU neighbours in terms of environmental standards has been pushed by the Environment Secretary Michael Gove. It is a claim upon which doubt and ridicule has been heaped. Yet, there are no practical reasons as to why this ambition is foolhardy. Johnathan Gaventa of E3G, a climate change think tank, has stated that ‘in principle, it should be both possible and desirable for the UK to emerge from the Brexit process with just as strong position on climate and clean energy as before’.

Within academic circles, the UK government’s environmental ambition has been questioned. Neil Carter and Mike Childs have argued, for example, that ‘Brexit means that the UK environmental and climate change policy is facing huge uncertainty and instability’. Despite policy such as 2008’s CCA, neither future ambition or the maintenance of current action seem certain post-Brexit. The admission by the UK government that the Clean Growth Strategy is unlikely to meet the demands of the fourth and fifth carbon budget is a reminder of the precarious nature of UK climate action.

Given this uncertainty, there is a severe need for further academic inquiry into the matter. A forthcoming Brexit special issue of the Marmara Journal of European Studies (vol. 26, no. 1, to be released this September) contains our investigation of the possible post-Brexit destination of UK climate action. A subject matter that is currently obscured by the focus on the Brexit era’s limited topics of debate. The article is titled ‘On the agenda? The multiple streams of Brexit-era climate policy’.

Our analysis focused on the three streams of problems, politics and policy that must be engaged for a policy matter to rise to the level of becoming worthy of policy change. The multiple streams model, developed in the USA by John Kingdon suggests that policy change only occurs when a policy window has opened. For that to occur, publicly identified problems must exist, there must be the political will and capacity to change those problems, and there must be suitable policy solutions available to confront those problems. Whilst primarily used in analyses that retrospectively assess how policy change is possible, our application of the model explores whether it provides usefulness in assessing if policy change is likely.

Firstly, our analysis of the problem stream found that despite headline-worthy news about irreversible climate change, such as the permanent exceeding of 400ppm CO2 in the world’s atmosphere, the identification of climate change as a severe problem in need of prioritisation remains low. Whilst the problems in climate change have failed to excite UK politics, nor has the problem of Brexit’s impacts on UK climate action. For example, the Committee on Climate Change have identified that EU-level legislation could account for around 55 per cent of the UK’s 2030 greenhouse gas reduction commitments. A ‘no deal’ Brexit could therefore be a severe problem for UK climate action.

Secondly, in the politics stream, we found that despite an increased level of public awareness of and concern over climate change, there is little political will for instituting radical climate action in the Brexit era. In the post-referendum general election, on 8th June 2017, climate and clean energy matters were far from the political debate. This represents a long-standing arms-length approach that the main parties have taken in the UK to these matters (with the inception of the CCA being one bipartisan exception).

Lastly, in the policy stream, we found that whilst a compelling case exists for a continuation of the UK-EU relationship in respect to climate and energy concerns (therefore negating the need for policy innovation) this does not seem to be a preference in the Brexit-era. In the white paper on the UK’s withdrawal, the government stated that: ‘We want to take this opportunity to develop over time a comprehensive approach to improving our environment in a way that fits our specific needs’. This vague language indicates that whilst policy change is likely, the material of that change is not yet present in government decision making.

Utilisation of the ‘three streams’ analysis concludes that the UK is currently sleep-walking into diminished climate actorness. For a climate-conscious UK public, the results will undoubtedly disappoint. Whilst the need for climate action has never been higher, the absence of the subject in the country’s debate is striking.