Does Brexit offer the chance for UK to push climate action to new heights?

Despite mounting fears over the potential threats Brexit poses to the UK's green economy, industry leaders have claimed that leaving the EU could provide the nation with opportunities to innovate in order to remain a global leader in the sustainability sphere.

Speaking at the annual Green Alliance debate in London on Tuesday (May 29), panellists including Barclays chair Sir Ian Cheshire and European Climate Foundation chief executive Laurence Tubiana concluded that while the UK will not automatically maintain its status as a climate leader post-Brexit, a “clean” and “green” Brexit will offer the nation a new sustainability challenge ripe with opportunities for businesses and politicians alike.

A recurring topic during the debate was trade deals, with Cheshire, Tubiana and event chair Evan Davies all suggesting that the UK’s ability to arrange new trade deals post-Brexit will mean it can embed sustainability targets within them, proving not just its own leadership but encouraging other countries to boost their standards.

While Tubiana called for the main targets of the Paris Agreement to be enshrined in any future UK-EU trade deal as “a way for the UK to lead Europe once again”, delegates suggested they could go one step further than mapping out a 2C trajectory.

Cheshire insisted that the removal of Brussels-based trading standards laws from the UK would not result in a “race to the bottom” with trade deals where products adhere to more lenient sustainability criteria, both imported and produced.

He claimed that business leaders and politicians would not be in favour of conceding to lower standards to make it easier and quicker to close deals, noting that the public are “quick to block” shifts to reduce sustainability standards.

“One of the reasons the UK has led in this space is that time and time again, the public have pushed politicians to do something they were possibly not that keen to do,” Cheshire said. “In a world where Britain might be losing its influence in other areas, as long as we have a government where all parties come together to make this national [climate] agenda, I think we still have an opportunity to put this on the global agenda.”

Citing the role the public and the “Blue Planet effect” had to play in Theresa May’s plan to ban plastic straws, Cheshire claimed that sustainability issues would be dealt with as nationally and globally “important” post-Brexit. He also emphasised the importance of the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group in catalysing cross-party scrutiny on sustainability agendas.

Tubiana, who was instrumental in the Paris Agreement negotiations as France’s ambassador to COP21 in 2015, claimed Britain should be “admired” due to its position as the first G7 economy to ban new coal plants and phase out existing ones; setting 2050 climate targets and carrying out a full economic climate risk assessment.

“The UK has always been a true global leader for climate and the environment, and you did not need the EU to make that happen,” Tubiana said. However, the European Climate Foundation chief executive concluded that the UK could not “automatically continue being an enthusiastic leader in this sector” and would have to find “innovative” ways to lead the continent and the world once more.

Green finance opportunity 

While worries around watered-down standards in trade deals remain a cause for concern for some green groups, the Government has at least acknowledged the growing trend towards green finance through its launch of the Green Finance Taskforce last year, committing to recommendations by the Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).

Since the launch of the Taskforce, a string of High Street banks have increased investments in green business projects, with Lloyds TSB launching a £2bn Clean Growth Finance scheme; Barclays introducing dedicated green trade loans and Natwest pledging to deliver £10bn of lending to UK renewable energy and energy-efficiency projects by 2020.

“Genuinely financing a transition to a green economy is going to be something that the Brits are pretty good at and will have an opportunity to play at on the world stage in an area where we are at an advantage,” Cheshire added.

His observation provided an alternative take in the wake of concerns the banking industry is failing to disclose and take action on climate-related risks, leading the panel to conclude that while Brexit as a whole has led to Britain’s position as a global sustainability leader being left in limbo, the nation should continue to assert its position by accelerating progress in certain sectors.  

“While Brexit does not remove the need for brave policies, the more we can find manageable areas and identify pockets of where remaining a climate leader is very doable, we can succeed,” Cheshire added. “We have to tackle it in bite-sized chunks rather than seeing it as mission impossible.”

Sarah George

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