Policy & Regulation

03 Feb 2020

Brexit Day: The Great Green Gamble Begins

03 Feb 2020  by James S Murray   
Whether you regard the prospect as exciting or terrifying, the UK is embarking on an uncertain journey outside the EU - the consequences for the environment and the green economy, both good and bad, will be considerable.
We're leaving, as, it turns out, we always had to. For all the malfeasance and untruths of the Leave campaign and all the tautological vagaries of what actually constituted Brexit, once 52 per cent of the voting public voted to leave it was all but inevitable this day would come.
One of the many tragedies of the past four years has been how the escalation on both sides of the interminable debate slayed any hope of the referendum result being interpreted in the most obvious and democratically legitimate fashion: as the softest of Brexits, with a five year review - that is to say an election - where the case could be made for a starker break from the world's largest trading bloc or a return to the Brussels' fold. The parliamentary majority was always there to stay in the single market and customs union, to properly emulate the successful model offered by Norway, to deliver precisely the approach that ahead of the referendum even the most vocal of Brexiters said they wanted. But instead a sort of madness descended. Nigel Farage and co screamed for a 'real Brexit', Theresa May caved, Boris Johnson postured, and the arch Remainers responded by betting everything on a second referendum, and losing - again.
The net result is a narrow mandate to leave the EU secured with 52 per cent of the vote has morphed into an overwhelming parliamentary mandate for an extremely hard - but still yet to be precisely defined - Brexit secured with 45.6 per cent of the vote. Democracy in action, folks.
We leave tonight and the chance of delivering a relatively low risk Brexit - a Brexit that minimises disruption to people's lives, protects the economy, and guarantees continued environmental protection - all but disappears as the clock strikes 11pm. The UK's direct involvement in the great environmental project that is the European Union draws to a close. The membership that helped to clean our beaches and rivers, ratchet up our food and product standards, and beef up our diplomatic muscle as we collectively strived to convince the world to avert climate catastrophe is over.
Many people will celebrate tonight, including some committed environmentalists and green business leaders. But those capable of looking beyond the tribal divide will acknowledge that many of their fellow citizens regard January 31st 2020 as a day of loss and sadness. And all but the most one-eyed of ideologues will surely accept that we are now embarked on an extremely high risk new project. It may turn out brilliantly, helping to establish the UK as the world's foremost net zero emission hub, a crucible of a global green economic revolution, an exemplar of a modern, clean, free-trading 21st economy. Then again, it may not. Anyone who says they know how the next year and the ensuing decade will play out is lying. They've probably got a garden bridge to sell you.
Of course, should all hope the grand Brexit gamble pays off and thankfully there are reasons for optimism.
Departure from the Common Agricultural Policy will enable reforms that could have a far bigger impact on the UK's natural environmental and emissions profile than even advocates of the new Agriculture Bill anticipate. The promise of public payments for public goods opens up a path that could lead to the transformation of the very look and feel of the UK. Rewilding habitats, carbon sinks, natural flood defences, healthy soils and forested uplands, a burgeoning forestry industry providing clean power and negative emission timber buildings, the idea of farmers as true stewards of the land, all of this becomes not just possible, but likely.
More broadly, on a raft of environmental and climate issues the government continues to make all the right noises. The net zero target is in UK law; clean technologies, improved public transport links, and emerging green industries are all central to Boris Johnson's strategic priority of 'levelling up' the UK; and the government wishes to remain the closest of allies with the EU on climate issues and is set to share hosting duties for this year's COP26 UN Climate Summit with Italy. Time and again Ministers insist they have no intention of diluting environmental standards or allowing the import of chlorinated chicken. Meanwhile, a raft of big green announcements are being prepared with some expected as early as next week. Public support for green action has never been higher and climate impacts will only become more pronounced. There is no political incentive for the government to row back on its net zero ambitions. Indeed, one of the government's first moves of the post-Brexit era will be to reiterate its commitment to decarbonisation.
Listen to the more thoughtful Brexiters and this is their vision. A dynamic, outward-looking, and agile green economy freed from Brussels' over-reach to innovate and drive the development of the clean industries of tomorrow, but still trading with the EU and working closely with our neighbours and friends on many matters of shared interest, such as climate change and energy security. The model is for a two or three tier Europe, with the core still in place with France and Germany and the Eurozone, while an outer circle of the UK, Norway, Iceland, Turkey, and Switzerland pursue a model where trade ties remain in place, but the primacy of the nation state over Brussels is much more clear-cut.
It is a not unattractive vision. The problem, as anyone who has watched the past three years play out will attest, is that there will be plenty of turbulence before you reach those sunlit green uplands and you may well lose a lot that you hold dear along the way - like the right to freely travel the continent, or a car factory or two.
Moreover, reaching this end goal depends to a large extent on maintaining good relations with the EU and getting a workable trade deal over the line. Again, there are some reasons for optimism. Just as happened last year when Boris Johnson reverse ferreted on the Northern Ireland backstop and gave the EU what it had originally asked for while spinning the deal as a grand strategic victory, it is possible that economic and political gravity will once again assert themselves as this year's trade negotiations proceed. Neither Westminster nor Brussels want a cliff-edge 'no deal' Brexit and the chaos and recession that would come with it. Both sides will want a deal and Johnson has the majority and political capital he needs to sell a compromise agreement, even if, as basic economic and negotiating realities suggest, it is the UK that ends up acceding to most of the EU's demands.
It is feasible to see a form of words being reached that allows for tariff-free access to the EU and minimises non-tariff barriers in return for the UK accepting some form of 'level playing field' assurance mechanism by another name. As such the government could almost by accident find itself with a softer form of Brexit that ensures UK environmental standards remain high and broadly in line with the EU, businesses get a high degree of continuity with regards areas such as the EU emissions trading scheme and REACH chemicals regime, and trade continues with minimal disruption. We can but hope.
The problem is that other scenarios are available, and they are just as plausible.
Right from day one the EU has had no incentive to agree to anything that compromises the integrity of the single market, hence the early setting out of level playing field commitments and 'no dumping' as a red line. At the same time, the UK government's insistence it will not accept any form of regulatory alignment seems genuine and goes right to the heart of the sovereignty arguments that first convinced Johnson to join Vote Leave. Something will have to give. Add in inevitable high profile rows over fishing rights, immigration systems, and security co-operation and the potential for the talks to fall apart is considerable.
There are reasons why amongst those celebrating tonight will be the UK's small but influential band of Trumpist climate sceptics and free market ideologues. They can see their main chance. If the trade deal talks fail - or even if they succeed but only in so far as delivering a deal so poor that it acts as a major long term drag on the UK economy - then they stand ready with their deregulatory arguments. They will claim that energy and food bills are too high, that the economic climate is too bleak, and that 'no one in northern swing seats cares about climate change anyway', so why not ditch this decarbonisation nonsense, cut taxes, and import cheap US food. In an age of falling clean tech costs these arguments will be based on the flimsiest of foundations, but if the last few years have taught us anything it is that half-truths and outright lies can still gain traction.
The response to such fears from green Tories and government ministers is that they would never dilute environmental standards, and the British public would never let them even if they wanted to. At which point they clutch their pearls and with faux outrage ponder why green campaigners still disbelieve them. The answer, of course, is because of the things their colleagues have said and done. In parts of the Party the commitment to a low tax, even lower regulation, 'is climate change even really a thing' pollutocracy runs deep. It hasn't given up on its Brexit vision just yet. It is entirely possible that at some point in the next decade a nakedly populist party could exploit a post-Brexit slowdown to secure a majority with 40 per cent of the vote, before then picking up the Trump playbook and rolling back air and water regulations while hymning the importance of clean air and water. Meanwhile, as evidenced by yesterday's Environment Bill, the current government refuses to provide any legal non-regression assurances to guard against the dilution of environmental standards, so as to keep its options as open as possible.
The green economy can and should continue to prospect in a post-Brexit Britain. The fundamentals remain good and the climate crisis is not going away any time soon, more's the pity. A path is available for a net zero, innovative, agile UK economy that retains close ties with its European neighbours and friends. That is what large majorities on both sides of The Channel want to see happen.


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