Benedict McAleenan is a Senior Adviser to Policy Exchange’s Energy & Environment Unit. Ed Birkett is a Senior Research Fellow at Policy Exchange.
If you listen to much of the anti-Brexit rhetoric, you’d think that the EU was the sole driver of environmental progress in the UK and its only protector. Given half a chance, the UK would apparently repeal every environmental and climate change policy it could find. Given the UK’s cross-party support for environmental protection and for Net Zero, this risk was always theoretical.
The deal includes substantial provisions on the environment and on climate change as part of the ‘Level Playing Field’ and associated ‘non-regression’ clauses, which will require both the UK and the EU to uphold existing protections.
On energy, the deal introduces new mechanisms for the UK and the EU to cooperate on nuclear power, natural gas and electricity. The deal also looks forward to future cooperation on cross-border energy projects in the North Sea, which, as we’ve previously written, holds the key to a Net Zero economy. It also suggests an intention to cooperate on carbon pricing and hints at a linked Emissions Trading System. On both energy and the environment, this deal is a sensible starting point for longer-term cooperation.
Protecting the environment
On fishing, the big negotiation points were about the business of fishing fleets, not sustainability. So once the fisheries transition period ends the UK will be responsible for managing the sustainability of its own resources. Now that we understand how fisheries will operate with regard to our European neighbours, the UK Government should recommit to its sustainability pledges. This should include the sustainability of ‘shared stocks’, i.e. fish that swim across borders, so we’ll need to collaborate closely with the EU on marine standards.
The level playing field rules allow both sides to diverge on environmental standards. Throughout the Brexit debate, the EU has often been painted as a gold standard while the UK has been presented as quite the opposite. That isn’t accurate: The UK exceeds the EU on a number of protections, from climate policy to animal welfare. Diverging from the EU’s farm policies, for example, will be a major boon for the UK’s environmental wellbeing.
However, membership of the EU provided important environmental oversight. This has helped to address the tragedy of the commons which can arise from more local political trade-offs. The Environment Act aims to fill this void with an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), which will replace EU institutions in scrutinising environmental protections.
The Deal’s ‘rebalancing’ mechanism (part of its level playing field provisions) will provide some checks on top of the OEP, but these will be limited. By allowing both sides the chance to impose tariffs (among other things) if the other loosens environmental checks, it may help to prevent backsliding. However, the provisions only relate to how the changes affect trade and investments. That is, if a loosening of regulations can’t be explicitly shown to impact trade, then they won’t come under the remit of the Deal. So, the onus is back on British politicians, the OEP, civil society and voters to ensure the environment is protected. That’s perfectly reasonable within the terms of a trade deal between sovereign nations.
Of course, the UK and the EU have different legal philosophies that govern the evolution of law and regulation. The EU’s French-style precautionary approach jars with the British ‘common law’ tradition. How they will manage divergence is still to be seen.
There’s also a question over devolved administrations. Environmental protections are mostly devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations, so the UK government can’t easily prevent the Welsh, for example, from relaxing environmental rules and potentially affecting trade.
Cooperation on energy and climate
When it comes to energy, the UK and the EU have a lot to gain from cooperation, so it’s not surprising that the deal includes substantial provisions in these areas. The benefits of close cooperation will continue to grow. One area where the Deal is ambitious is cooperation on renewable energy projects, particularly in the North Sea. There’s massive potential for low-carbon energy projects in the North Sea, including offshore wind and offshore electricity grids.
By 2050, offshore wind capacity in the UK’s part of the North Sea is likely to increase tenfold. Both sides have recognised that, to make the most of the North Sea, they need to work together on offshore wind projects and offshore electricity grids.
When it’s windy in the UK, we can export our excess electricity to Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Whereas on cold, still days, we will increasingly import electricity from the continent. This mutual cooperation directly reduces electricity bills by making the most of cheap renewable energy when it’s available.
From January 2021, Great Britain will no longer have access to the automated ‘market coupling’ system that improves the efficiency of trading electricity. However, the deal aims to develop a new system for trading electricity by 2022. In the meantime, electricity bills are likely to rise in both the UK and the EU. Any cost rises will be manageable, but the biggest effect could be felt by customers in Ireland and Northern Ireland, because the Single Electricity Market (which covers ROI and NI) is small and only interconnected to Great Britain.
The Deal also leaves open the possibility of cooperation on carbon pricing. For now, the UK is setting up its own Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) to replace the EU ETS. Longer-term, the UK and the EU could link these Emissions Trading Schemes, as Switzerland has done with the EU. As we’ve previously written, the UK and the EU should also explore cooperation on carbon border pricing, which is critical to decarbonising heavy industry without offshoring manufacturing jobs to countries with higher carbon emissions.
On electric vehicles, the UK and the EU have agreed transitional arrangements that will make it easier for EVs manufactured in the UK to qualify for tariff-free exports to the EU. This is a sensible step that will give UK car manufacturers more time to build up their supply chains for EVs, including battery “gigafactories”.
Under this deal, the UK Government regains control over regulation of emissions from vehicles. This will give the Government more freedom to go further and faster on the rollout of Electric Vehicles, including the ability to legislate to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, which was announced as part of the Prime Minister’s ten-point plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. We have previously written about how a California-style Zero-Emission Vehicle Mandate (‘ZEV Mandate’) can reduce the cost of the transition to zero-emission vehicles powered by electricity or hydrogen. Under a ZEV Mandate, manufacturers would be required to sell an increasing proportion of electric and hydrogen vehicles each year. Next year’s Green Paper on the petrol and diesel phase-out is the perfect opportunity for the Government to introduce a ZEV mandate and show how we can use new-found regulatory freedom to boost both the environment and industry.
In summary, it’s a good deal, but there’s still work to be done to develop collaborative partnerships on energy systems and environmental protection. From liberal energy markets to legislating on net zero, both parties have been close for decades. The key now is to implement these provisions as smoothly as possible so that we can continue to trade with increasingly sustainable industries on both sides.
This is the fourth in a series of pieces from Policy Exchange looking at specific issues that arise from the Brexit trade deal.