Life after Brexit: A new road for the green economy, but the destination remains the same

First Brexit, and then England exit Euro 2016.

The latter will certainly take some getting over, but it is the former that leaves a general feeling of deep uncertainty about the future – especially among Britain’s green economy.

Seven days ago, I insisted that now is not the time to pull up the drawbridge and take on the global challenge of climate change alone. I wrote of the certain environmental disruption that would be caused by voting to leave the EU, and the myriad risks of leaving additional green policy control at the hands of a Conservative Government that has already rocked investor confidence with its chop-and-change approach.

In the days that followed the shock outcome of the Referendum, we reported that the UK’s challenge to build a clean, secure and affordable energy system could become significantly harder; that an energy policy divide between England, Wales and Scotland could begin to form; and that businesses could be less incentivised to improve recycling rates and tackle the air quality crisis.

All-in for green business

So, we cannot deny that the risks facing sustainability and environmental professionals are enormous. But, in the past 24 hours – as I’m writing this blog, in fact – some signs of optimism are beginning to trickle in.

In this period of uncertainty, we need our inspirational global climate leaders to give us all a good shake and remind us of the positive progress we have been making; we need our business leaders to continue to take bold actions and inspire others to follow suit; and we need our policymakers to reassure us that they remain fully committed to climate action, regardless of our position out of Europe.

At this week’s Business and Climate Summit, we’ve had all three.

First, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres took to the stage to quash any claims that the UK’s impending departure from the EU could derail the Paris Agreement, instead claiming that a concerted effort to tackle climate change could be the “thread of continuity” that the UK needs during this uncertain and volatile period.

Next, Ikea’s chief sustainability officer Steve Howard proclaimed that business can still unlock low-carbon opportunities “like we’ve never seen before”, as long as our Government sends clear policy signals and goes “all in for the carbon-free movement”.

And then, in the past couple of hours, UK Energy Secretary Amber Rudd has stood on the same stage, reassuring green business and investors that her Government remains committed to building a secure, affordable low carbon infrastructure fit for the 21st Century – a speech that has been widely welcomed by green groups.

Did Rudd hold all of the answers for green business? No, of course not. Is she herself happy with the outcome of last week’s Referendum? Not at all. But what is clear, from these three speeches combined, is that there is a way forward which does not come at a cost to our environment or hamper our levels of ambition on green business development and climate change mitigation. The power to change now lies firmly in Britain’s hands – it is up to us to ensure that change is for the better.

The road to zero carbon

Tomorrow, the UK Government will respond to its first test: the setting of the Fifth Carbon Budget.

The UK’s Climate Change Act (2008) sets an 80% emissions reduction target for 2050, from 1990 levels, with a rolling programme of Carbon Budgets – each spanning a five-year period – to help meet that goal. According to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the UK is currently on track to outperform the Second and Third Carbon Budgets, but off track to meet the Fourth, which covers the period 2023-27 and requires a 50% emissions reduction from 1990 levels.

The CCC has recommended a Fifth Carbon Budget that would limit the country’s annual carbon emissions to an average of 57% lower between the period of 2028 and 2032, compared with 1990 levels. MPs and sustainability professionals have already urged the Government to accept the CCC’s proposals, warning that “we can’t afford any further delays”.

If the Government does take heed of those recommendations and set an ambitious carbon reduction target then this is, at least, one area of green policy that Brexit has not impacted.

So, whether it’s global climate agreements or nationally-defined low-carbon action plans, the end goal will be same. Our path to that end goal is by no means a straight and easy one – Brexit will certainly take us down a new avenue, with some bumps in the road. But maybe it doesn’t matter which road we embark on. Maybe what matters is that we embark, and never lose sight of the destination. (Read: ‘the known unknown of Britain’s low-carbon progress‘)

It’s now up to us, the bastions of the low-carbon movement, to take the driving seat and continue to push the green economy into a vibrant new era.

To quote M&S’s director of sustainable business Mike Barry, in a blog post after the EU Referendum: “A reminder to all of us as individuals: buck up. The die has been cast. You can retreat in misery and despair or you can step up, learn the lessons and make a difference. You were doing it yesterday, you just need to do it even more today.”

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