by Adam Woodhall — A Baroness, professor, a past CEO of the Environment Agency and Boris Johnson’s father were just a few of the assembled luminaries who gathered to discuss and dissect the topic “Brexit: What does it mean for the environment” at the offices of DLA Piper at London Wall as part of the ongoing Castle Debates.
This is clearly a hot topic, as the packed room testified to. A wide ranging conversation—from policy on waste, to rural and farming affairs, with a considerable focus on carbon reduction—highlighted both the breadth and depth of environmental issues and the impact that the UK vote to leave the European Union will have.
“Brexit mustn’t mean wreckxit”
Although the speakers appeared to have wished to remain in the EU, they all agreed that it was important to remain positive and look for opportunities, whilst recognising the challenges. As Stanley Johnson, former Conservative MEP, co-chair of ‘Environmentalists for Europe’ and the chair for the meeting observed when opening the debate: “Brexit mustn’t mean wreckxit”. Paul Leinster, the past CEO of Environment Agency, and now Professor of Environmental Assessment at Cranfield University concurred: “What are the opportunities we need to grasp, not what we should regret”? Raising a laugh from the audience, Baroness Kate Parminter agreed, saying “I’m a Lib Dem, you’ve always got to find the positives”.
The main request from all the speakers and panellists in the debate which followed, be they lawyers, politicians, ex- senior civil servants or representatives from corporations, was for as much stability as possible. As Leinster observed, there is now an opportunity for the new government to provide a “stable policy and regulatory framework within which business will invest in environmental improvements”.
Matthew Knight, Director of Energy Strategy and Government Affairs at Siemens, went further, suggesting there was a hope as: “Whilst Brexit was a campaign without a plan for implementation, the new May administration is effectively a new government without a manifesto. Whilst the Brexit vote impossibly constrains the new government on issues relating to the EU, it has more freedom of movement in other areas of the economy.”
There was considerable detail on policy from all the speakers. An example of the insightful commentary on offer came from Teresa Hitchcock, Partner at DLA Piper UK LLP, who observed; “much existing legislation was pioneered by the UK, and the UK would not necessarily now wish to change aspects originally agreed at EU level”. She gave the example that the UK is likely to stick to the “EU’s Renewable Energy targets despite the Brexit vote”.
Clear signal to investors
Hitchcock advised that Brexit was unlikely to affect the Climate Change Act and that “the UK Government has said that it will enshrine in law a long-term goal of reducing carbon emissions to zero”, therefore providing a good deal of policy certainty. Add this to Theresa May’s confirmation that the UK will ratify the Paris Agreement this year and that leading businesses from around the world, including DLA Piper, are lobbying for and committing to a low carbon future, and it provides “a clear signal to investors that infrastructure and technology developments will increasingly have an emphasis on low-carbon”.
Parminter cautioned that there were many threats with Brexit, but she saw a big opportunity to replace the Common Agricultural Policy, with the challenge being how are farmers to be supported? Parminter advocated the importance of a policy of supporting public goods. Notionally, this is completely within the governments remit, because, as Leinster observed, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for DEFRA, Dr Thérèse Coffey MP answered on 13.9.16 to a written question to parliament that: ‘In the 2015 Manifesto, we set the goal of being the first generation to leave the natural environment in England in a better state than we found it. We remain committed to this ambition.’
Knight of Siemens was refreshingly outspoken for a representative of a large corporation, suggesting that “energy is long term, interrelated and often counterintuitive. That does not sit well with politics which produces short term, populist and wrong answers”. He went on to suggest that the science of climate change is some way ahead of the politics and that action lags a long way behind politics. Whilst he was nervous that he not seen any business as usual signs from government, he was heartened that strategy is included in the name of the new department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, after being banned by the last administration.
As the last speaker of the day, Knight had the privilege and opportunity to finish with a positive rallying call, and he didn’t disappoint: “On the whole young people did not vote for Brexit but they will live with the consequences. In the case of energy, we have to use the opportunity of the new political reality to decarbonise our country, build sustainable green growth and create an outward looking international country where they can thrive.”