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The government's approval of its fifth carbon budget is one sign the worst fears of green business may not be realised
As the Brexit shockwave reverberates around the world, bringing down politicians and sending markets into a rollercoaster ride, the question of what impact it will have on the environment might seem relatively trivial. But with the fight against climate change hanging in the balance, it’s anything but.
So what’s the answer? In the immediate term, economic turmoil is rarely good news for green business. Most agree investor caution will stymie new projects, desirable and otherwise. As I write, Siemens has just frozen all new wind power plans for Britain, while the prospects that the long-delayed Hinkley C nuclear plant will ever actually get built are receding even further over the horizon.
And if turmoil morphs into recession, then "soft" business sectors such as sustainability could struggle to win their share of diminishing resources. This could impact everyone, from environmental managers to the wider world of consultants. But doom-laden fears of the death of corporate sustainability are probably unfounded: in the 2008 crash, most companies defied predictions and kept their sustainability headcount pretty much intact. The issue is now sufficiently tied into mainstream business that it will take more than the Brexit shock to derail it. For the research community, it’s less certain. Much of the excellent work of British universities, which depends on EU-funded collaborations could be at risk.
Leading environmentalists on both sides of the English Channel were almost unanimous in backing a Remain vote. Within Britain, they feared Brexit could lead to the dismantling of a whole array of EU rules protecting everything from water and air quality to clean beaches. Europe-wide, they were concerned that action on climate change and other global issues, on which Europe has increasingly spoken with one voice, would be compromised.
The extent to which these two fears are borne out remains to be seen. Britain’s narrow choice to leave was due to a strong turnout by older Conservative voters and the white working class "left behind" by globalisation. Environmentalism, along with many other cherished liberal concerns, comes well down their list of priorities, and climate scepticism is widespread. If, as some suspect, the referendum marks an increasing political assertiveness among these groups, then politicians keen to secure their support could well light the match to a bonfire of green regulations and climate commitments.
But this is far from certain. EU regulations are enshrined in UK law; they don’t simply vanish as and when Britain finally "brexits". Each would have to be specifically repealed. A government keen to be seen to be slashing Euro-red tape might take the axe to some, but here – as with the whole Brexit omnishambles – much depends on the nature of the final deal. Most mainstream politicians – including many on the Leave side – favour a "best of both worlds" agreement that would keep Britain as much as possible in the single market. This would be hard to achieve without aligning UK laws with relevant EU rules – environmental ones included.
On climate, where the UK can claim with some reason to be a European leader, there are at least cautious grounds for optimism. This is one area where governments of both main parties have been ahead of public opinion. And while today’s Tory Government may be a long way from the "vote blue to go green" days of a decade ago, it’s just approved the UK’s fifth carbon budget, with targets to cut emissions by 57% by the early 2030s. None of the leading Tory leadership candidates – Theresa May and Michael Gove, after Boris Johnson's surprise exit from the race – is what you’d call a green enthusiast, but none is an outright climate sceptic, either.
On the positive side, there’s a strong case that investment in a green economy, particularly in the energy sector, could provide a real boost for those post-industrial "left behind" regions that saw some of the strongest support for Vote Leave. Once the environmental movement recovers from shell-shock, it needs to start making that case. And that means engaging with the very people it might see as least sympathetic.
So, to sum up. In the short-to-medium term, a rocky ride is pretty much guaranteed, and there will be green casualties in everything from business to research to the non-profit sector. Further down the line, disaster is far from certain. Norway – often cited as a potential model for a Brexited Britain - has strong environmental rules and a thriving green business sector. As the saying goes, never waste a good crisis. These may be dark days now, but from fighting for robust climate policies to demanding government support for sunrise entrepreneurs, there is everything still to play for. Britain may have exited from Europe, but it hasn’t left the planet.
Martin Wright is a writer, editor and speaker on environmental solutions and sustainable futures, and an adviser and contributor to Ethical Corporation. He was formerly a director of Forum for the Future
Brexit carbon budget Environment climate change sustainability