Caroline Kuzemko, Mathieu Blondeel, and Antony Froggatt.
Now, a year and a half post the end of the transition period and as the Northern Ireland Protocol bill passes its first round of votes in the House of Commons, is a good moment to assess the implications of Brexit for UK energy and climate policy.
Brexit was framed as a route back towards a truly ‘Great’ Britain. Getting Brexit done was meant to ‘take back control of our money, laws and borders’ and enable new, global trading relationships, whilst also reducing bureaucratic burdens and keeping public funds in the UK, to be spent on the NHS. This infers that the UK would be able to do things ‘better’ than the EU.
What Brexit proponents did not promise was billions of pounds lost in trade and tax revenues, as recently reported by the Centre for European Reform. Nor was there any suggestion that meeting climate targets would become harder and that it would place huge pressures on the UK’s civil service and delay key policymaking processes, like sustainable energy transitions, as claimed in our recent research article published in Policy & Politics: ‘Brexit Implications for Sustainable Energy in the UK’.
Little Brexit debate, and rhetoric, was targeted at climate change or energy policy – partly because these UK-EU relationships had been working reasonably well for both sides, underpinning increasingly inter-connected policy, markets and physical infrastructure. Our new article argues that this functioning relationship has been somewhat sacrificed at the altar of Brexit – but also that UK sustainable energy policymaking capacity has suffered at a truly crucial time in the global fight against climate change.
Our article recognises the importance of government actions in driving and enabling urgent sustainable transformations across all sectors of the economy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has repeatedly warned that new policies, implemented in the 2020s, are crucial to meeting the Paris 1.5 degree target, not least as global emissions need to fall by 43% by 2030. The UK has made legally binding commitments to decarbonisation: Climate Change Act budgets and Net Zero 2050, but is not on track to meet either of them. At the same time, energy prices have escalated, exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, further exacerbating the already unacceptable energy poverty situation and cost-of-living crisis in the UK.
Both of these issues could have been substantially alleviated through sustainable energy policies, like energy efficiency and low-cost onshore renewables programmes, but instead the UK civil service has been overwhelmed with other priorities: Brexit and Covid-19.
The UK civil service was at its lowest ebb, due to austerity cuts, when the Brexit process started and, despite Brexit and Covid-19 additions, has remained well below pre-austerity levels. Brexit has required a huge amount of policy work just to ‘get it done’, negotiations are not over and still require government capacity, whilst Prime Minister Johnson is now proposing a further 90,000 cuts in civil service jobs at a time of global climate crisis and war in Europe.
Further exacerbating the difficult policymaking situation in the UK, our article found that EU energy and climate institutions had played an important role in carbon reduction, financing sustainable projects, setting energy efficiency standards and enabling efficient energy trade and interconnection with Europe. As a result of EU exit, many of these policy regimes and instruments needed to be replaced, which was part of the workload of Brexit. Some of the replacements work reasonably well, i.e. the UK Emissions Trading Scheme, others less so, such as the agreed, but temporary, gas and electricity trading and interconnection rules. Essentially, the UK has had to work very hard politically to replicate EU energy and climate policy capacities with relatively less efficient UK versions, whilst new governing bodies and instruments infer financial costs not anticipated by Brexiteers.
Brexit is, however, far from over in sustainable energy terms. The less efficient electricity trade and interconnection rules are holding back significant electricity decarbonisation plans, particularly North Sea offshore wind projects. The stakeholders involved are pushing incredibly hard to renegotiate the temporary trading agreement – indeed a new set of rules was supposed to be in place in April this year – but negotiations are being held hostage by the UK’s decisions to go back on Brexit commitments to the EU. Negotiations will be further hampered by the announcement, on the 29th June, that the UK had implemented new measures allowing National Grid to cut off gas pipelines to the Netherlands and Belgium if the UK is faces supply shortages.
At the same time, the UK is now left outside of vital, new EU policy programmes. The EU has moved swiftly in response to Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, with the REPowerEU package of policies, and is addressing key issues of justice in energy transitions, with the Just Transitions and Social Climate Funds as part of its Fit for 55 package. This relative estrangement of the EU and UK is a lost opportunity given their geographic proximity and importance to one another, especially at times of crisis in energy and climate change terms.
You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:
Caroline Kuzemko, Mathieu Blondeel, and Antony Froggatt (2022). Brexit implications for sustainable energy in the UK. Policy & Politics.
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