Climate change adaptation after Brexit – what now for the UK?

Climate change adaptation after Brexit – what now for the UK?

By Will Bugler

Three and a half years after the EU referendum, the UK has left the European Union. Despite agreeing on a withdrawal agreement, a lot of uncertainty remains about what the future relationship between the UK and the EU will look like. Eleven months of trade negotiations lie ahead, and it is unclear how closely aligned the UK will remain with EU standards on the environment and climate change.

So, what do we know about the implications of the UK leaving the EU on climate change resilience? There are likely to be both risks and opportunities for the UK, depending on the direction taken by the UK government, and the demands other countries make as part of ongoing trade negotiations.

The first point to make is that the UK is just one country, albeit an historically important one, when it comes to climate change. The global efforts to tackle the issue will continue in spite of Brexit and climate change adaptation and resilience building happens predominantly at the local level. Brexit is therefore unlikely to impact the climate resilience building efforts of countries other than the UK’s in the near term.

The UK has generally played a positive role in global negotiations on climate change, particularly with regards to climate mitigation. There is no reason at present to think that this will not continue. However, at future UN conferences it will not be negotiating as part of the wider EU bloc, and instead will negotiate as a separate country, this is likely to significantly diminish its influence. COP26 in Scotland this year will be a litmus test for the UK’s readiness to lead on the issue.

In terms of the UK’s position on financing adaptation and resilience around the world post Brexit, the signs are that more emphasis will be placed on trade as a mechanism for development, and less on other forms of development assistance. How this will manifest in terms of finance for adaptation through existing mechanisms such as the Green Climate Fund is unclear, however the government has made clear that it is prepared to use the countries aid budget to fund climate adaptation, rather than making additional funds available.

Governance, investment and research: Adaptation in the UK post Brexit

The immediate issue for the UK post Brexit is the repatriation off EU regulations into UK law. The extent to which the UK is then able to diverge from those standards is then up in the air and will be decided as part of the future trade negotiations. However, in order to achieve tariff-free access to the common market, the EU is certain to demand a level playing field in environmental law.

One significant area of concern is the governance gap created as the UK leaves the EU’s long-established systems for monitoring and ensuring implementation of EU law, which is currently overseen by the European Commission and European Environment Agency and the Court of Justice of the European Union. In the UK, several agencies that have governed climate change adaptation have either been abolished, or faced considerable cuts in recent years, including the UK Climate Impacts Programme, the adaptation team within DEFRA, Natural England, and the Environment Agency.

EU investment funds that support initiatives to build climate resilience will also come to an end. The loss of European Structural and Investment Funds that target climate initiatives may be a problem, especially for devolved countries and regions, unless the government commits to find funding for them elsewhere. There are also questions about whether European Investment Bank loan funding will be as accessible after Brexit.

In addition to EU financial support, there are concerns about the ability of UK firms and research institutions to access major EU research funding streams such as its Horizon Europe research programme, the new phase of which is due to start in 2021. British researchers will hope to take advantage of this €100 bn programme, with UK scientists currently receiving €1 bn a year from EU sources as well as benefiting from ease of collaboration with EU partner organisations, access to EU infrastructure, and freedom of movement for researchers and technical experts. The extent of access to the funding will depend on the level of payment the UK treasury is willing to put into the scheme and will form a part of the ongoing negotiations over the UK’s relationship with the EU.

Overall Brexit points to a shrinking of UK influence on the direction of climate policy and response on a global stage, through diplomatic channels at least. However, with the right policies and investment, the UK government will still be able to demonstrate leadership by example on climate adaptation if it chooses to invest wisely. Leaving the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, for instance, does provide opportunities for the UK to incentivise farmers to regenerate natural ecosystems and manage flooding, so long as policy is designed effectively.

In the runup to the UN climate conference in Glasgow the eyes of the climate world will be on the UK to provide leadership. Beyond that, the UK’s fortunes will be governed largely by the shape of the trade deals it is able to secure, and its willingness to invest substantially in climate change adaptation here and abroad.


Cover photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

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