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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Brexit and the Environment

Air Date: Week of

The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union after over four decades of membership (Photo: freestocks.org, Flickr Public Domain)

The UK’s vote to leave the European Union raises questions about how Europe will meet its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement, as the EU negotiated its greenhouse gas emissions cuts as a bloc. Rachel Kyte of the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All tells host Steve Curwood that the jury’s out on how Brexit and Britain’s consequent political shifts might affect other environmental policies as well.


CURWOOD: The recent vote in Great Britain to leave the European Union, known as Brexit, has roiled global financial markets, pushed the British pound to a 30 year low against the dollar, and raised questions about how the UK and EU will now deal with the environment.

There are concerns that Brexit could slow ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement, though that accord can go into force if 50 countries and those representing 50 percent of global emissions ratifiy it, and the EU including the UK only represents 10 percent of emissions. But the EU has been a leader in climate and environment, so for some insight, we turn to Rachel Kyte, the CEO of the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative. She joins us from Washington, D.C. Rachel, welcome back to Living on Earth.

KYTE: Hi, thank you for having me back.

CURWOOD: You're speaking to us from your office in D.C., but I understand that you yourself are a Brit. Can you briefly describe how much of the UK's carbon and energy targets currently ride on the policies of the EU?

The “Leave” campaign won 51.9% of the British vote. (Photo: (Mick Baker)rooster, Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

KYTE: Yes, I've got one of those Queen Mary accents, stuck somewhere between the UK and US. [CURWOOD CHUCKLES] So I think, to step back, the climate targets have been negotiated by the international community were negotiated by the European Union as a bloc with United Kingdom party that's agreement. And so the targets for emissions reduction, a 40% of economy wide reduction over 1990 emissions levels, were negotiated with UK’s economy included.

Increasingly around the world, in order to achieve a low carbon economy, you know the focus really is on regional energy integration. And so, you know, Britain's energy future lies within a European energy market. I mean, our ability to import clean wind power from Denmark etc. at a reasonable price, this is part of the future that we were building, so I think there’s question marks over what the commitment of the country and the new government is for that kind of future.

CURWOOD: So this raises a bunch of questions. First of all the UK is taking its time to leave the union, as, I guess, it’s a two-year process, and actually that fuse hasn't even been officially lit, as I understand it, so is the whole commitment business just going to wait for the next two years while Britain sorts things out?

KYTE: Up until Bexit the assumption was that European Union would ratify quickly. Now, for the EU to ratify, every country within the European Union has to ratify itself, so today France and Hungary have already done that. Now the UK really would appear to have two options. One that it can ratify now as an EU member state, which would enable EU-wide ratification to go ahead. The second option would be that the UK not ratify now, in which case the EU wouldn't be able to do so, for as long as the Brexit negotiations persist. And that risks a potential delay in the Paris agreements entry into force. The European Union is continuing on, as if nothing has changed because, indeed, Article 50 has not been invoked yet, but I think the consternation within the community is the uncertainty of not knowing when and how the United Kingdom will exit the European Union and exactly under what terms and what decisions the European Union and the UK will reach, in terms of going it alone or continuing to operate within the EU's targets.

Britain has been a key leader in the European Union on environmental policy. Above, a nature reserve borders a housing development to provide habitat for waterfowl. (Photo: Gareth Williams, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: And of course the UK has sharply reduced its emissions over the years, thanks to closing down the coal mines and much use of coal there. So what happens now if the EU has to go it without the sharp reductions that the UK has made?

KYTE: So first point, I think, is to acknowledge that the emissions need to be reduced now across the energy sector. There needs to be a continued drive of energy productivity across the European Union including UK. There needs to be a real driving down of emissions from the transport sector across the European Union. And then, of course, you know, a very sensitive issue is the emissions that come from land use and land use management, including farming. It's very clear that if the United Kingdom is taken out of the way in which burdens have been shared across the European Union, then you have two choices. One is that you come up with a weaker goal or that you have to go back and ask other European union countries to make the deeper cuts.

CURWOOD: Sounds complicated and difficult.

KYTE: You know, at best this is a distraction. At worst this is disruptive because at this point in time, you know, absent Brexit, we would be really looking at ramping up action across the economy to make the European economy as productive and competitive as possible, and we would be really looking for perhaps even greater ambition because remember in Paris we agreed to be way below two degrees. And INDC's that were filed in Paris, when you added them up, got just about three degrees, so we have more to do anyway.

The UK may need to renegotiate its emissions reductions responsibilities in the Paris Agreement. (Photo: shirokazan, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

CURWOOD: So, overall, how do you think that the Brexit event is going to influence environmental policy in the UK and the EU going forward?

KYTE: So, we've been talking about emissions and sort of the climate angle on this. I think that domestically there’s a huge adaptation issue in Britain. Britain is, you know, a sort of rocky outcrop of the coast of Europe and extremely vulnerable to climate change, and the amount of investment in domestic infrastructure to withstand the volatility of the weather and the intensification of extreme weather is something which is been very much in the forefront of the environment agency and is very much in the minds of communities around the UK. So how will the funding for all of that become mobilized within domestic economy? And then finally farming and fishing and the way in which we sustainably manage those processes will now be the subject of extremely complicated negotiations as one assumes that Britain will exit from the common agriculture policy and the common fisheries policy.

CURWOOD: Well what do you think of the argument that Brexit could actually benefit the environment because the UK may still be bound by EU laws but would no longer have any say and be able to weaken them?

KYTE: Well, I mean, my view is that the UK has been a powerful force for good within the European union, since it's negotiated its entry and since it's been a member of the European Union. And when it comes to energy and climate and sustainable development, the UK has been, you know, a steady voice for action because we've had a cross-party commitment to a greening the economy and to climate action over the past decade or more. It's been a constant leadership voice within the European Union, so, I think, to lose that voice, I think, is to the detriment of the European Union. And then from a domestic point of view we have benefited from strong European regulations to improve environmental standards. All of the early work on making public housing more energy efficient, that all came from Brussels regulations, and I think that before the referendum it was very difficult to find anybody within the field of environment or energy or climate that believed that Brexit would be a net positive.

Rachel Kyte is the CEO of Sustainable Energy for All and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All. (Photo: Sustainable Energy for All)

CURWOOD: So, with Brexit the conservative Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, resigned and now Theresa May is the new prime minister, and she immediately disbanded the Department of Energy and Climate Change. How significant is this, and to what extent do you think it may change the way that the UK mitigates and adapts to climate disruption?

KYTE: So, the dissolution of the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the creation of a new Ministry of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategies has been one of the most controversial aspects of Theresa May’s new government and new cabinet. The critics have said, you know, to take climate change out of the title of the ministry, this will result in a weakening of focus on the way climate has to be a focus of energy policy, etc. On the flipside, you know, I think there is a case to be made that the next chapter of action, as it were, really is domestic in the United Kingdom, and it's about driving climate goals through the energy system, through the transport system, through infrastructure, through housing, through the whole of business. And it’s a sort of total economy/total government approach, and perhaps on paper this new ministry potentially this would give climate change a true hold on industry, energy and business strategy. I think I'm cautiously optimistic, but if the government's truly serious about maintaining Britain's leadership in climate action, then this is going to be a ministry which really has to be given the resources to be a powerhouse.

CURWOOD: Rachel Kyte is the CEO of Sustainable Energy For All, an initiative of the United Nations. Thank you so much for taking the time today.

KYTE: Thank you.



Check up on the Paris Agreement’s status of ratification

The Guardian’s Environment blog: “UK’s out vote is a ‘red alert’ for the environment”

The Guardian: “Abolition of Decc ‘major setback for UK’s climate change efforts’”

New Scientist: “Green lining? Five ways Brexit could be good for the environment”

Sustainable Energy for All

About Rachel Kyte


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