Brexit day: What (if anything) changes for the green economy?

At 11pm tonight (31 January) the UK will formally leave the European Union (EU), and while Big Ben won't be bonging and passports won't turn blue until Summer, the landmark day will usher in a period of intense trading negotiations that could impact green policy in the UK.

Brexit day: What (if anything) changes for the green economy?

Trade deals are the biggest stumbling block for new green policies

When the Brexit vote was cast in June 2016, not many people would’ve envisioned that the UK would be subjected to almost four years of uncertainty that grounded some key green policy bills to an absolute standstill.

However, Friday 31 January officially marks the end of the UK’s involvement in all EU political agencies and institutions as the dust finally settles on the UK’s most contentious public vote – ignoring the fact Mrs Brown’s Boys won a National Television Award this week.

As the clocks silently strike 11 this evening, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will address the nation in a special address, while a special 50p coin – made from recycled variants – will enter circulation.

For the green economy, the immediate impacts are less obvious, but the Government has been frantically working to set up legislative frameworks that promise to uphold and improve existing green legislation, but could ultimately be renegaded from in the pursuit of new trade deals.

Trade Deals

During the Brexit negotiations, the UK was not allowed to hold formal trade negotiations with other nations as it was still an EU member. However, once departed from the Union, it is believed that countries such as Australia and the US will be the focus on new trade deals. Speculative reports warn that this could see the UK water down environmental standards for imports from the two nations that are currently being steered by climate-denying world leaders.

However, agreeing to a trade deal with the EU is arguably the top priority meaning the UK will have to adhere to the Union’s strong track record on environmental legislation.

In fact, environmental standards are largely future-proofed, at least in the short term, by the agreed withdrawal deal. The latest agreement includes clauses that enable the UK to come out from all EU laws, including the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policy.

Part of the agreement on the departure from the EU customs union and the laws that it enforces is a new regulatory system that the UK will need to stick to as part of any future trade deals with EU nations. This has been called a “level playing field”. This would require the UK to conform to EU standards on environmental policies and others as part of a trade deal, but the UK has no legal obligation to maintain current standards if no trade deal is agreed.

The document includes details of the EU laws which would be transposed into the UK under this level playing field agreement and the numerous emissions and environmental-related standards that the UK has signed up to throughout its membership of the EU. This includes directives on industrial emissions, transport emissions – including a variety of rules on Euro 5, 6 and 7 vehicles – waste, and biodiversity.


While a UK-EU trade deal is pursued, the UK will be subject to a transition period, meaning the nation will continue to follow EU-derived rules.

Over the last month, ministers have been working overtime to finalise key legislative bills that essentially enables the UK to take ownership of environmental laws that are the equivalent to EU standards, with mechanisms potentially introduced to exceed them in some areas.

The Fisheries Bill has been introduced to replace the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy and focuses heavily on sustainability. It sets into law that fish stocks cannot be depleted beyond levels deemed sustainable and has added measures on “climate-smart fishing”. However, Greener UK does note that the Bill will need to enforce these actions and close previous loopholes that enabled fishing limits to be exceeded.

The Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) Agriculture Bill has also been introduced, confirming the Government’s plans for rewarding farmers that make environmental improvements and safeguarding green standards post-Brexit.

As expected, the Bill includes measures that will see farmers and land managers rewarded financially for work to improve air and water quality; boost soil health; implement flood mitigation and adaptation measures; improve access to the countryside or bolster animal welfare. Payments under this incentive scheme will be rolled out over a seven-year period starting in 2021, replacing some of the existing Common Agricultural Policy’s incentive schemes. The Bill includes a promise for the pot of funding allocated for this purpose not to dip below current levels.

However, inews is reporting that campaigners are “worried that Europe’s tough regulations” – including beach cleans – will be “badly compromised in trade deals”.

As recently as this week, the landmark Environment Bill has been reintroduced outlining powers to stop the exports of plastic waste to developing countries, and revamped governance systems on clean air and biodiversity and two-yearly reviews to update the Bill if required.

In principle, these bills set the UK on a strong trajectory to protect and regenerate the natural environment and push towards its net-zero emissions target for 2050 – which will be overseen by a soon-to-be created Office for Environmental Protection (OEP).

However, as has often been the case with recent UK policy, bills and strategies have come across as aspirational and often exclude the precise mechanisms and blueprints that ensure targets will be hit.


During the transition period, the European Court of Justice continues to oversee legal disputes, at least until the OEP is set up or an interim body is established.

The UK will also continue to pay into the EU’s budget during the transition and as a result, existing EU grants will continue to be funded. It was announced as early as 2016 that the government will guarantee that EU-projects continue to receive funding over a project’s lifetime if they successfully bid into EU-funded programmes before the end of 2020.

Nottingham, for example, is one of four European cities that have been selected as pilot sites for CleanMobilEnergy – a project backed by €4.29m of EU funding which will utilise various clean energy systems and V2G technologies to support regional EV rollouts.

The upcoming Budget in March could detail fresh funding commitments for clean growth projects. The Government claims that the next Budget – its first since the 2050 net-zero target was enshrined in law – will prioritise environmental spending alongside investment in public services.

Specific details regarding where new funding will be invested are sparse at present, but emissions-related measures given significant weight in the Conservative Party’s manifesto include carbon capture and storage (CCS), hydrogen, nuclear power and energy efficiency measures for the built environment.

Matt Mace

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