Brexite is a major threat to Europe’s climate targets. The energy supply would also change – to the detriment of the British population. Nina Locher asks whether energy poverty and economic injustice could be prevented by stable British-European cooperation.
When I cycle to university in London in these months, strong winds and rain alternate with a blue sky and bright sunny days up to 20°C, all mixed with car exhaust. This year, Londoners experienced the hottest February month in the history of weather records. Nevertheless, some British MPs still deny climate change entirely. For example, Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party and member of the European Parliament, even founded the institute “Global Warming Policy Foundation” for publications against climate change.
The United Kingdom was integrated in the EU’s energy and climate policy framework for decades through the European Energy Market, the Emissions Trading System and EURATOM. But when this cooperation will abruptly end after Brexit, the European climate targets will be endangered – targets to which the United Kingdom has committed itself, too.
Energy Sovereignty at the Expense of British Citizens
According to many supporters of the pro-Brexit Leave campaign, the UK’s exit from European climate and energy commitments marks an important step towards more sovereignty for the country. The British Climate Change Act of 2008 had adopted many of EU’s environmental regulations into national law. By binding the Climate Change Act to European regulation, its implementation is safeguarded in political and legal terms by the European Union as well as the European Court of Justice. If the UK is to leave the EU and the EURATOM agreement, it will no longer fall under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
Although a new environmental watchdog will advise and control the British Government in environmental questions from 2020 onwards, it lacks a sincere focus on climate change, as well as the power to hold the government accountable in case of dispute.
For Brexiters such as Michael Gove, the current Secretary of State for Environment, however, Brexit symbolizes a big chance for a so-called “Green Brexit”. The UK has indeed led much of the progress of the EU’s energy policy. The European Energy Atlas states that the country reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by more than a quarter (25.9%) between 2005 and 2015. In comparison: The EU has managed to reduce its emissions by 16.7%; Germany still lags behind with a reduction of only 8.7% in this decade. As a pioneer in wind energy, British wind power accounted for 14.1% of the national electricity production in 2018. Estimates say that offshore wind power alone will cover 30% of the British power demand by 2030.
UK primary energy use by source, millions of tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe), 1970-2017. Bottom: Shares of UK energy use (%). Source: DUKES 2018 Table 1.1.1. Chart by Carbon Brief using Highcharts.
And that’s not all: The year 2025 will mark the end of British coal production. By 2040, the British government aims at ending the sale of petrol and diesel cars, as well as at having predominantly zero-emissions cars on British streets. If it proceeds alone, the UK would no longer have to compromise with national energy interests from Germany, Poland or the Czech Republic.
However, this “green” Brexit does not consider the severe aftermath of worsened energy poverty in the country and endangered energy security at the expense of the British population.
Social Consequences of British Unilateralism in Energy Policy
With Brexit, the UK would leave the European Energy Market, which until now has secured the energy supply for power and gas in the country. As a future external trading partner to the Energy Union, prices for the UK would increase and therefore raise the inefficiency of the UK power market.
In terms of energy supply, the Irish island marks a special threat: Northern Ireland and Ireland are interconnected by the All-island Single Electricity Market. In the case of a No Deal Brexit, the energy supply of Northern Ireland would immediately be threatened once the UK leaves the European energy market.
In addition, Brexit could lead to a massive deregulation of the British energy market. According to the European Commission, deregulated policies in the UK would skew European competition by dumping tax, environmental and social policies. As a consequence, this could also restrict and slow trade within the European Energy Market.
These developments will affect the overall welfare and security of British citizens in terms of energy policy. Increasing power prices will exacerbate the already looming economic inequality in the United Kingdom and push more vulnerable citizens into energy poverty. Energy poverty means the danger of not being able to pay electricity bills and to heat flats due to excessively high prices. Already today, about 15% and 4 million British households live in energy poverty. Last year, a total of 17,000 deaths were caused by cold housing conditions.
Critically, a British energy transition can only be sustainable and socially just if it is designed on a European level. This is why we must now start to strengthen British-European cooperation and enforce strict climate regulations in the UK.