Will the UK be the “Dirty Man of Europe” Once Again?

In a June referendum, 52% of UK citizens cast their vote to leave the European Union. The debate centered on the economy, immigration and security concerns – all touching on broader issues of sovereignty and political freedoms. The implications of Britain’s exit (“Brexit”) will take years to fully understand as the complicated process of disentanglement begins. One effect that did not factor greatly into the public debate, but the ramifications of which could be felt for generations is the environmental impact this break up will have on the UK and possibly Europe as well. Will Brexit turn the UK into the “Dirty Man of Europe” once again?

Uncertainty definitely looms as the environmental movement in the UK prepares for life after Europe, and there are legitimate reasons to be concerned. In the immediate aftermath, the green economy will suffer from crashing financial markets depriving it of much needed investments. Carbon prices fell in the first few weeks, and new energy developments are likely to be postponed. Long-term effects depend on the strength of domestic legislation, which up until now has been bolstered by an EU political framework that pushed the UK to adopt these measures, and enabled them to make such great strides on climate, wildlife conservation, and sustainable development. Environmentalists now worry these protections will not be maintained nor will even be completely undone. These fears were given weight as news of a 25-year plan to curb environmental damage has been postponed, according to Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT). With Brexiters talking about a need to “slash red-tape,” more looks to be on the way.

And what happens to Britain’s climate-action pledge, which was submitted as part of the EU’s pledge in the Paris climate agreement? Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change also voiced her concerns prior to the vote. “From the point of view of the Paris agreement, the UK is part of the EU and has put in its effort as part of the EU, so anything that would change that would require then a recalibration.” The response of the new government in Britain will show just how important these issues are. While former Prime Minister David Cameron was committed to climate action, many of those who campaigned for Brexit have also advocated for looser environmental restrictions in the past, or are climate deniers altogether.

Some officials seem to be saying the right things, however, giving some cause for optimism. A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said in response to the delay of the 25-year plan, “Developing a 25-year plan for the environment is a Conservative manifesto commitment and a priority for this department. While the precise nature of the plan may change now the UK has decided to leave the EU, we will seize this opportunity to consider our long-term vision for the environment and work with a range of interests to determine and deliver it.” Some other positives have emerged in recent weeks, giving some indication that the UK may not go backwards on the environmental front. The City of London Corporation announced it has banned the purchase of diesel vehicles for its business when older models need replacing. Even the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has made climate change a priority of his administration. As Vice Chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group Steering Committee, Mr. Khan wants London “to be the leader in low-carbon innovation and industry, cleaning up our dangerously polluted air, and setting out an ambitious long-term plan for clean energy in our capital.” In his first week as Mayor, Mr. Khan announced a bold plan to address London’s air pollution – nearly 10,000 Londoners die each year due to poor air quality.

Time will tell what the legacy of Brexit will be, but one of the core pillars of sustainability is integration. We all share the same resources, so our policies affect one another, directly or indirectly. Brexit doesn’t necessarily mean the UK cannot still maintain strong environmental protections, but it is a red flag.

About Matt Falco

Matt is an alumni of the MA GLSD program, having focused his research on green building and the use of green roofs as a mitigation strategy towards climate change in New York City. Currently, Matt is General Manager of Planet Initiatives at The Americas Business Council Foundation, a think-do tank that identifies and supports high-impact initiatives and leaders in the Americas striving to promote peace, sustainability and prosperity. Matt's professional interests include working with the public and private sectors in order to promote innovative, long-term and sustainable solutions to social, economic and environmental challenges.
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