Post-Brexit Britain must embrace circular economy to trade with EU, says Green Alliance

EXCLUSIVE: The legislation established as part of the European Union's nascent Circular Economy Package will still shape how a post-Brexit Britain develops new resource-efficient products and closed-loop business models, regardless of whether we stay in the single market or not.

That is the view of Green Alliance policy director and chair of the UK’s Circular Economy Taskforce Sue Armstrong-Brown, who spoke at edie’s Resource Revolution event in London yesterday (5 July).

Armstrong-Brown, who works to shape Government policy on the circular economy, said the only way for Britain to open up trading streams with the EU after it leaves the bloc will be to create much more recyclable, repairable and reusable products and services.

“We know the legal model for Brexit: we either negotiate to stay in the single market as part of the European Economic Area (EEA), or we leave that and arrange a free trade deal,” Armstrong-Brown told Resource Revolution delegates.

“The situation is so volatile and it could all change, but as far as I can see, if we stay in the EEA then waste and eco-design derivatives will apply to us – this includes any additional product standards.

“If we want to trade with Europe – and it’s quite difficult to imagine a future where we wouldn’t want to trade with Europe – all of the EU product standards and design provisions would continue to apply for us. If we want to trade with the EU in a single market or outside of it, complying with the Circular Economy Package is the ‘no-regrets’ option as a nation and as businesses.”

Brexit blues

Since the shock decision for Britain to leave the EU two weeks ago, sustainability professionals and environmental campaigners have been greeted with a wave of uncertainty over the UK’s green policies.

Even though recycling and air quality policies could degrade once the UK invokes article 50 and begins taking the formal steps to leave the EU, Armstrong-Brown noted that the EU’s commitment to promoting the Circular Economy Package – which includes legislative proposals on waste management to stimulate Europe’s circular economy transition – would force politicians to “create the framework that enables UK businesses to compete”.

Armstrong-Brown noted that the UK is already complying with the Package’s headline 65% recycling target for municipal waste by 2030 – although this could drop by roughly 10% in the near future as better data management is attained. 

However, the real fallout from leaving the EU could come from the ambitious framework established by the European Commission’s Action Plan for the Circular Economy. The Action Plan creates a pathway to implement eco-design and second material standards for products and materials. This is extended to electronics (e-waste) and plastics, which could have a ‘strategic publication’ in place by 2017.

Moreover, if the UK opts to establish free-trade deals outside of the single market, Armstrong-Brown warned that the Horizon 2020 funding scheme – which is set to invest more than £57bn in a range of sectors to support circular economy developments (and has already been utilised in the UK) – will likely become unattainable for Britain.

“If we stay in the single market, the Horizon 2020 pot might still be available to us if the UK pays into the pot – but if we leave [the single market], it’s unlikely to be available,” Armstrong-Brown said.

“The interesting thing in all of this is the politics. It’s a key incentive and I think this is where the key sensitivities will play out. We’re more likely to take a watching brief rather than negotiating key trade deals, but the timescale for agreeing waste directives and for developing and agreeing the action plan is the same as the Brexit timescale.

“It’s very clear that the UK leaving the EU will probably weaken the political drivers during an economic downturn that focuses on jobs over the policies. If policymakers deregulate and fail to promote the circular economy then it’s going to hurt the businesses that have been in the vanguard of this movement. But the circular economy presents quite a lot of opportunities and is part of the picture for how the UK can compete and how the economy can thrive post-Brexit.”

Circular vanguard

Armstrong-Brown – who has previously told edie that there are still a range of systemic barriers to the UK adopting a fully-fledged circular economy – noted how the Government’s recent approval of the Fifth Carbon Budget has provided a much-needed beacon of hope that green policies won’t be ignored post-Brexit.

Before ending her speech, Armstrong-Brown called on the UK Government to provide the right political environment to allow businesses to adopt circular business models more easily. She noted that a ‘business-as-usual’ approach to closed-loop practices could create at least 50,000 new jobs in the UK.

“Post-Brexit needs to provide the framework to enable businesses to work with the Circular Economy Package and be able to compete on these terms,” Armstrong-Brown concluded. “We need a sector-wide message that is clear and easy to understand to let politicians know they have a mandate to put in place to create a supportive policy frame for the circular economy, so that British businesses can take the lead.”

Matt Mace

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