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What does Brexit mean for the Environment and Energy Sector?

Blog by Dr Charlotte Burns

Dr Charlotte Burns, Lecturer at the University of York, was invited as a guest speaker to the Sustainable Energy Association’s Executive meeting in January. She spoke about the potential impact Brexit could have on energy and environmental policy. During the discussions two key themes emerged; the need to maintain and enforce current legislation such as EPBD and ErP and ensure that the policy framework remains as stable as possible throughout negotiations and beyond. Dr Charlotte Burns provides her views on what Brexit might mean for the sustainable energy sector below.

One of the notable aspects of the environment has been its relatively low salience during the referendum campaign and its aftermath. Theresa May made no reference to the environment in her Lancaster House speech laying out her Brexit negotiating priorities. There was passing mention of it in the Brexit White Paper, although little concrete detail as to how the government intends to  ‘develop over time a comprehensive approach to improving our environment in a way that is fit for our specific needs’.

This relative lack of interest may be a function of the depoliticisation of the environment – it is seen as a ‘low politics’ issue. EU environmental regulations were designed to enable the single European market to function effectively. There has been an acceptance by policy-makers that environmental problems require transboundary solutions and an acceptance of the drive to adopt higher standards. The government’s commitment in the Brexit White Paper to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than they found it may reflect this widespread acceptance of the broader environmental agenda.

As EU policy has provided a driver for innovation in the sustainable energy sector by requiring states to meet targets on renewables and eco-efficiency, looming Brexit raises the prospect of an uncertain future for sustainable energy in the UK. We are already on a trajectory to miss EU mandated 2020 targets and Brexit raises the prospect of potentially weaker targets over the long term and limited enforcement.

Whilst the planned adoption of a Great Repeal Bill has addressed concerns about the scope for regulatory gaps emerging post Brexit, it does not address what will happen to legislation afterwards. There is on-going concern about the risk of policy dismantling where legislation is either rolled back or left to wither on the vine with no monitoring enforcement or regular updating. The Environmental Audit Committee has sought to address these issues by calling for an Environmental Protection Act to be adopted post Brexit. The House of Lords has similarly called for a coherent legal framework for environmental governance, but there is, as yet, little indication of an appetite to adopt such a bill by the government, leading the House of Lords to suggest that the Government is worryingly complacent about the enforcement of environmental law post Brexit.

However, it is important to note that the future of UK environmental policy is only partly in our hands – we still have to negotiate an exit deal with our EU partners that must be agreed by each of them and the European Parliament. An important question then concerns the extent to which the UK will be obliged to maintain standards and regulations to access the Single European Market. What position will be taken by EU negotiators on what counts as a trade-related environmental measure and what does not and which environmental policies will the EU want to see maintained in the UK? It is unlikely that the EU will find it desirable from either an environmental or an economic perspective to have an offshore pollution haven on its borders. So if we do end up with Theresa May’s ideal of a non-SEM, non-Customs Union, Free Trade Agreement, it is still likely that environmental conditions will be attached, not least in the field of energy efficiency.

As the Brexit band-wagon rolls on, the short-term picture is still one of uncertainty, but with on-going pressure from political representatives, NGOs and affected business actors there is an opportunity to shape post Brexit environmental governance to ensure an on-going commitment to sustainable development and climate leadership in the UK. However, it is important that the pressure be sustained to stop the environment, energy and climate slipping off the Brexit agenda altogether.

To read more about the EU and Environment post Brexit see:

Twitter:  @EUrefEnv


Funded by ESRC The UK in a Changing Europe Initiative (

Dr Charlotte Burns contact details:

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Work Ph: 01904 324070

Monday, February 27th, 2017