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Entering in the realm of uncertainty: what Brexit means for the environment

This blog was written by Alexa Waud, an intern at GreenPAC. The opinions expressed in this article are of the author’s, and are not necessarily reflective of the views of GreenPAC.

Uncertainty [uhn-sur-tn-tee] — the state of being uncertain; unpredictability. It’s the word best used to describe Britain’s political and economic status following last Friday’s referendum to leave the European Union.

Following the referendum, the British pound has seen immediate and extreme deflation. Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned. The Labour Party is deeply split. Scottish independence is on the table once again. And no one, including the leaders of the successful “leave” campaign, seems to a have a plan for what comes next.

This uncertainty is quickly permeating into other policy areas, including environment and climate change policy. Within hours of the Brexit referendum results, multiple organizations had published articles forecasting the environmental policy impact of Britain’s decision to leave the EU, including Greenpeace UK, and Politico.

On one hand, a prolonged economic downturn following a Brexit could indirectly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, although hardly through the low-carbon transition advocated by most environmentalists. The plummeting pound and forecasted recession would raise the cost of imported energy, decreasing demand. But this impact would likely be short-term. It is the long-term environmental impact that is the cause for concern.

A Brexit means that EU environmental policy would no longer be maintained in Britain. As Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven notes, the EU policies that protect British waterways, air, and natural resources, as well as climate change mitigation strategies are “hanging by a thread”. The UK will also have far more freedom to pursue nuclear projects and fracking.

Not all of Britain’s climate policy is EU-related. In the past Britain has led on climate. It established its own renewable energy commitments, was the first country to enact a binding law for cutting emissions in 2008, and even created its own voluntary emissions trading system before the EU-wide ETS. However, this progress is reversible.

There is reason to fear environmental leadership would not exist in the new British Parliament. Many Euro-skeptics are also climate-skeptics. As Sauven warns, “the climate-denying wing of the Conservative Party will be strengthened by this vote on Brexit.”

In fact, Boris Johnson, a leader of the “leave” campaign, denies anthropogenic climate change. In an incoherent article he wrote for the Telegraph last December, he claimed that the difference in outcome between the Copenhagen and Paris climate conferences — one an utter disaster, and one that ended in an agreement — was “the weather”. The warm Parisian December reinforced the idea of climate change, and the conference was a success. His take Brokenhagen: “Copenhagen saw the biggest snowfalls anyone could remember. ‘Global Warming?’ everyone asked.” His extreme misinterpretation of climate negotiations is frightening.

When EU countries signed the Paris Agreement, they made their commitment as a 28-member bloc. Removing Britain, one of the EU’s highest emitters, from this commitment would have serious ramifications. It is impossible to know what kind of new commitment the UK will submit, or whether they will submit one at all. If they ignore the progress made in Paris, global climate governance would be taking a huge step backwards.

To make matters worse, the environment was by no means a focal point of the Brexit debates, making it less likely that a scrapping of environmental laws and policies will garner significant public attention as the process for Brexit is carried out. As between immigration, the National Health Service, investment, trade, and more, it is unlikely that climate will make it on the list of top public concerns.

And this brings us to the crux of the issue: Brexit and the European Project are two ways to look at national borders. However, climate change is global issue, borderless and boundless. While politicians on the Isle and on the continent argue about how to regulate the flow of people, investment and goods across borders, greenhouse gas will continue to be emitted into the common atmosphere.

As Britain now enters a national conversation fixated on borders, the challenge for the country’s environmental leaders will be to include climate change and other borderless environmental issues in that conversation.

Alexa Waud is an summer student with GreenPAC from the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. She is in entering her final year, double majoring in Peace, Conflict and Justice, and Environment and Health. She is a leader of on-campus environmental advocacy groups, and a research assistant with the Munk School’s Environmental Governance Lab.

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