By Affan Alavi
The “sovereignty first” Brexit deal brokered by Boris Johnson’s Conservative party on Christmas Eve, and shortly thereafter passed by the UK government, has proved disruptive to some international trade (particularly with the EU) in its early days, but what does it mean for the UK’s climate and energy goals for the future? In pre-Brexit times the UK was held to the same emissions and energy standards as the EU, namely the net-zero emissions goal for 2050, and was thus bound to it through an international agreement. What does this mean for the standards to which the UK government are now held in regards to environmental policy? How much of the EU’s climate policies have been transferred over? And how effective will they be in making a difference in the long term?
The deal details that the climate and energy goals are much the same as the pre-Brexit ones, for instance the pledge to reduce the UK’s share of 40% of EU economy-wide carbon emissions by 2030 (basing from 1990) as well as to reach EU economy-wide climate neutrality by 2050. A clause has also been added that if either party were to renege on the agreed obligations, then the Brexit agreement could be suspended. It seems the new agreement saw climate change become a core point of policy, taking its place alongside respecting human rights and the rule of law. The clean energy side of the agreement is less promising, although pledges have been made by both parties to “promote energy efficiency and the use of energy from renewable sources”, and whilst the UK is leaving the single energy market both parties agree to cooperate on the efficient use of interconnectors and the development of offshore wind power in the North Sea. Yet, the language associated with these policies has been vague and does not represent conclusive agreements. On top of this, the UK’s new Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is relatively primitive and relies heavily on future links with external parties, most obviously the EU, to be effective. For example, the EU ETS, which the UK left on the 31 December 2020, requires big industries and airlines running intra-EU flights to pay a price for every tonne of CO2 they emit. Such commitments remain to be set in the UK’s ETS.
Much of the specifics of how the energy and emission-oriented goals of the agreement are going to be executed in policy are still undecided, and the UK side has been criticised for softening the wording in the few terms that have been decided. A closer look on the matter shows:
The “non-regression” mechanism detailed in the deal would prevent the involved parties from regressing on the agreed environmental standards, normally this would apply even if changes in policy would affect the economy either way. However, in this deal there remains a clause that it will only be applicable for environmental and labour standards if the weakening of standards demonstrably impacts trade or investment (i.e. this will have to be proven), which leaves leeway for future regression on environmental standards.
Back in May when the EU proposed its deal, there were reports that the two sides were clashing over policies on climate change and that the EU was taking a more hard-line approach. This does appear to be reflected in the new deal, as when referencing the 2050 net-zero target the word “ambition” was used rather than the more conclusive “objective”, which allows more space for deregulation in the future that could contribute to missing the agreed and necessary targets.
The dispute settlement mechanism described in the deal does not cover the environment and sustainable development sections, which adds a level of uncertainty to the degree to which the climate and sustainability regulations could be enforced. Instead the regulation of these sections will be taken over by “specialised panels” which ultimately will not be as binding as terms within the deal itself, this was in order for the UK to retain its autonomy on the management of these regulations.
The environmental regulations from the deal, which seem to be a redacted version of the regulation standards evident in the EU ETS and Paris agreement, have been used in the Environment Bill, to be overseen by a watchdog, and do not appear detailed enough to assure effectiveness. In addition, the wording associated with the proposed watchdog in the bill is loose and unbinding as it only necessitates that the government “consider environmental principles when they make laws” rather than impose the imminent dangers of environmental issues as a leading principle in law-making.
The deal also does not provide a binding international agreement on the regulations over domestic farming methods and certain non-eco-friendly imports, which would otherwise hold the UK government to account on the issues externally. This could lead to deregulation on the use of pesticides, GM seeds and the importation of chlorine washed chicken or meat filled with antibiotics. We have already seen this in action with the UK authorising a bee-harming pesticide for emergency use this January. Not only do these domestic issues need to be addressed in greater detail but the subsequent regulations need to be bound to a certain precedent independent of the UK government.
There is also no commitment that the standard environmental regulations will not be lowered in the new environmental bill as the UK government refused to implement this. This, combined with the lack of international trade ties, means that the future of domestic environmental standards are in a volatile situation. In the current state with the deal and the environmental bill, domestically speaking, the UK is vulnerable to lower standard imports and changes to important environment rules that don't affect EU trade. This leaves room for future regression in environmental policies and leaves no incentive for improvements on such policies or standards.
Overall the deal agreed on Christmas Eve 2020 is inconclusive when it comes to the specifics of how emissions, energy and industry will be regulated into the future, and leaves room for the UK’s environmental standards to be lowered going forward. This does not mean our government will lower our environmental standards but it does mean that we must hold them to account now more than ever to ensure Brexit does not negatively impact the UK’s climate goals.