In September 2020, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission announced that by 2030, the EU would aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55 percent below their 1990 levels. This new target joins other policy initiatives that together aim for the continent’s carbon neutrality by 2050.
When this ambitious plan, known as the European Green Deal, was officially announced back in December 2019, the United Kingdom was a key driving force behind joint climate action – a different reality to what we’re seeing over a year after Brexit.
With shifting dynamics and an ongoing global pandemic, what will change for European green recovery in the context of a post-Brexit world?
British climate role, redefined
Politics aside, climate measures remain a priority for most Brits: 67 percent of them want to see the country as a world leader on climate change, and four out of five hope for the same or even stronger wildlife and environmental protections in post-Brexit Britain.
Particularly in the past two decades, the UK has stunned the world as a true climate champion, spearheading diverse efforts and becoming the first adopter of the Climate Change Act. Yet, its recent political decisions have many experts concerned about the extent of the country’s commitment to net-zero targets.
Ahead of this year’s COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, the UK may be ready to boast its grand plans, but it’s already clear that the critics will be taking these claims with a pinch of salt. Some of the latest steps deemed environmentally detrimental include government support for airlines, the opening of a new coal mine, a U-turn on green homes initiatives, new licenses for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, and slashing incentives for electric vehicles.
A stronger “special relationship” on the horizon?
Following the end of the Brexit transition period, the EU proposed a “carbon border” with the purpose of preventing EU businesses to outsource production outside the union, should they try to avoid the common rules or replace local products with more carbon-intensive imports.
Subsequently, British companies cooperating with the EU may suffer from this initiative – pushing them to other trade partners such as the US, despite its over-competitive market. Ultimately, these developments could even put the country in a less favorable position when negotiating its new trade deal with the US.
In addition to that, there are also emerging opinions that the UK should look to the US for guidance when it comes to redefining its climate role. While the Trump administration was defined by ambiguity on environmental issues, Biden has already been taking steps towards an all-of-government approach.
Allies again, naturally
With the UK now considered a “third country”, the EU could lose major big players that could help integrate clean solutions union-wide. However, it doesn’t have to be the case. Ultimately, both parties still have the same decarbonization goals, meaning that they could pursue mutual interests when advancing energy collaboration, such as in the North Sea, to strengthen the relationship once again.
The EU is well aware of being “stronger together”; von der Leyen has recently stressed the need for continued cooperation with the UK. The UK, on the other hand, has been making commitments more or less aligned with European standards, though experts have noted that some of these refer to outdated targets. At the end of the day, around 80 percent of the current UK’s environmental legislation comes from Europe, so complete alienation is not viable.
The signs that the UK’s emerging net-zero workstreams overlap with the Green Deal show promise for the future. As public resources at both the country and EU level mobilize, both parties can work together to advance more sustainable economies through investments in green and digital solutions – and boost job creation as a result.
In order to meet ambitious climate goals, the EU should put emphasis on a climate-friendly growth strategy. In doing so, it will need to find a new working relationship with the UK – something that is not only in the interest of both, but of the whole premise of a sustainable future as well.