Monday, November 4, 2019


There can be no doubt about which issue is of greater importance for our future, but the “usual suspects” (our politicians and the commentariat) largely divide along the same lines on both. And in each case trade should be a crucial element in the policy mix and the political arguments. 

Brexit may be a forgotten issue in twenty years’ time (although it might not be wise to put money on that), but we can guarantee that climate  change will still be with us, most likely with ever more serious manifestations in terms of extreme weather and disruptive droughts and floods, but also with less time left to avoid climate catastrophe. We can also guarantee that under these conditions it, or rather the politics of mitigation and adaptation, will be climbing steadily higher on the political agenda.

So there is a strong case for arguing that climate issues should be the primary focus of our big political choices. The contrary case of course is that climate change is a global problem and requires global solutions. UK commitment to zero carbon targets is of little value unless it is widely matched across the world. (Hence the importance of the Paris Agreement). In consequence the decisions that will have the biggest near and medium term consequences, in terms of employment, income and general well-being, will be those that relate to our trading relationships with our nearest neighbours in Europe, in other words the Brexit debate.

But these two issues have, in the context of British and US politics, become inextricably linked together by the motives and ideologies of the main protagonists in the debate.
I wrote extensively on this subject inJuly 2016.

“Predictably, in the light of the Brexit vote, Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation has called for a de facto reversal of UK policy in relation to climate issues.  This is wholly unsurprising given that so many of the moving spirits in the Leave campaign – Lawson himself, Redwood, Rees Mogg, together with several of the small band of Brexit economists, and the Institute for Economic Affairs, have for many years engaged in passionate denial of both the climate evidence and the climate science.
The reasons for the correlation are clear. Commitment to and support for neo-liberal views of unfettered free markets and a minimal state are threatened, both by a Europe that does not always share those views and by a global danger whose resolution depends on global cooperation. Should this further attempt to advance the neo-liberal agenda be a cause for any concern?” 

I argued, correctly in the event, that the Lawson pitch would not be heeded. “The answer is almost certainly not. The costs of Brexit for the power sector may be high, but the climate policy imperatives are likely to be unchanged.”

The historic link between support for Brexit and climate science denial is however indisputable.  It has extended not only to many other Conservative MPs, but to Farage and UKIP (forerunner of the Brexit party), to Donald Trump and even to Brexit voting Labour MPs such as Graham Stringer, given his close association with Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation. Also indisputable is the connection, in ideological terms, between promotion of Brexit and small state, minimal regulation, low tax, free trade ideologies.

What is interesting now is the speed with which the Conservative party is abandoning, or pretending to abandon, most of the electorally inconvenient elements of this ideology. It is now committing itself, belatedly, to the kind of strong commitments on climate – zero carbon by 2050 for the UK – pioneered by Tony Blair in the 2008 Climate Act. But it is also, at least in its promises, committing to much higher levels of public spending, and an enlarged public sector, which are equally incompatible with the neo-liberal vision of the world.

For those of us who recognise the overwhelming imperatives for action on climate issues, it will be important to recognise the impact of Brexit on UK energy and climate policies, including some of the conflicts with other cherished beliefs and policies. Brexit would not necessarily have an immediate impact on UK freedom of action on climate related measures, other than through its almost inevitable consequence of reducing national income and hence affordability.

This is partly because EU-wide policies such as the emissions trading scheme have been of limited success, and partly because the physical infrastructure of interconnections with Europe will remain and be used for mutually beneficial trades. The UK might even in principle enjoy greater freedoms in state aids for the energy sector without the restrictions of a Europe wide competition policy.

As the EU scheme develops however it may provide members with potentially more efficient means to meet their carbon targets through trading, but it will be a scheme from which the UK is likely to remain excluded. Much more important however will be the longer term loss of UK influence on global climate initiatives, and most important will be the likely collision of climate policies with UK aspirations for international trade.

Increasingly countries making serious attempts to reduce carbon emissions will find it difficult to tolerate the export of jobs in energy intensive sectors to countries that pursue more lax policies. Climate policies will necessarily intrude into trade negotiations.

Since the Conservative Brexit narrative, despite the blizzard of other danger signals on pharmaceuticals, agriculture and regulatory standards, is based largely around a new trade deal with the US, this creates a serious inconsistency between their promises on carbon reduction and their post Brexit philosophy on trade. The US has already removed itself from the Paris Agreement, and is likely to retain a strong interest in protecting its own coal industry and promotion of coal exports, while countries adopting more responsible climate policies will not be willing to see their own industries penalised. This leads on to issues that the Conservative party has so far been unwilling to confront.

Brexiters will have many more questions to answer.

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