Keeping it green after Brexit

The Repeal Bill and negotiations over the UK’s exit from the EU raise questions about the country’s environmental measures, says Hywel Davies

goal for those who campaigned for the UK to leave the European Union (EU) is for Britain to open up new markets around the world and find innovative opportunities for trade and growth.

A major concern for those who wanted to remain in the union is that environmental considerations remain central to our drive for economic growth, so that we address climate change and enhance our environment while taking the new opportunities.

In its report Principles for a sustainable Brexit,1 cross-party think tank Policy Connect argues that low-carbon technologies, renewable energy solutions and sustainable materials are now available at similar costs to less green alternatives. So investment in sustainable infrastructure, smart regulation and smart technologies offers possibilities for economic growth while contributing to tackling the challenges of climate change.

“Policy decisions are needed, and then guidance on how to deliver the new infrastructure”

At the same time, clean, low-carbon technologies are a pathway to reducing pollution and to addressing the serious challenges of achieving acceptable standards of air quality in urban areas.

The circumstances around the UK air-quality plan have been well recorded elsewhere,2 but there are very significant and urgent challenges in London, in particular. While the focus is currently on reducing levels of pollution from vehicles – especially diesel engines – there is also a need to consider how to supply acceptable indoor air quality in urban buildings. This is very much a challenge for readers of the Journal, and CIBSE already offers guidance in this area, in Guide A, TM40 and others.

Looking further ahead, there will be increasing demand for low- or zero-emission vehicles. Whether these are electric or hydrogen-powered is debatable, but the recent announcement from Volvo – that all of its cars will be electric or hybrid from 2019 – accelerates the drive towards these types of vehicles. Less widely discussed is the infrastructure needed to support a growing fleet of electric vehicles and the charging systems they require, or the delivery of hydrogen as a fuel. This has implications for network capacity, because charging infrastructure will be needed in city centres and in residential areas. This places additional demands on domestic electricity supply and installations, and will affect hours and peaks of demand.

These all create challenges and opportunities for services engineers. Policy decisions are needed, and then guidance on how to deliver the new infrastructure. This is an opportunity for innovation and new business. It will also require careful management and regulation to ensure the infrastructure and new vehicles are compatible and interoperable, and that electric vehicle systems are appropriately integrated into building systems.

There is also a risk if silo thinking is allowed to prevent integration between vehicles and buildings and infrastructure. Inevitably, these developments will be multinational, requiring the UK to integrate with emerging international standards, whether from inside or outside the EU.

At the same time, we are turning to the outlook for UK climate-change policy. Another briefing3 sets out the current position, and notes the challenge we face in meeting the targets of the fourth and fifth carbon budgets (CB4 and CB5). These are set under the 2008 Climate Change Act, domestic UK legislation, unaffected directly by the decision to leave the EU. While we are currently ahead of the statutory targets, we will be falling behind by the fourth carbon budget, 2023-27. The Committee on Climate Change has estimated that the shortfall in CB5 will be 100Mt CO2 equivalent.

As Britain prepares to leave the EU, existing European law will be transferred into UK law. After our departure, these laws may be scrutinised and repealed, or adapted through national legislation.

It is clear that EU legislation on climate change and carbon emissions has contributed to the UK’s current progress in meeting domestic targets. Any review of EU-inspired regulations on buildings and energy needs to take full account of our ongoing – and more challenging – commitments.

This offers Britain a chance to overhaul environmental policies while upholding international commitments, attracting long-term investment and looking to develop – and embed – a long-term, systems-based strategy for energy, climate and emissions policy. Whether we are able to take that chance will become clear in the coming months, but it is an opportunity in which all Journal readers will have a clear interest.


1 Principles for a sustainable Brexit 

2 House of Lords library briefing on air quality in London.

3 House of Lords briefing, 15 June 2017, Leaving the EU: UK climate change policy.