With Andrea Leadsom, the UK’s Energy and Climate Minister and prominent Vote Leave campaigner, poised for promotion, how could leaving the EU affect UK energy and climate policy?
The question of who might make up the new government, and what the implications will be for the environment, is on many people’s minds.
Prime Minister David Cameron has announced he would continue in his post “with my Cabinet” until October. Whether he manages to last is yet to be seen.
And if you’re a betting person, the odds (at time of publishing) are that Leadsom is 2/1 to become the new Chancellor of the Exchequer. She is neck-in-neck with Michael Gove, another prominent Vote Leave campaigner.
Leadsom has previously worked in the Treasury. Starting in 2010 she served on the Treasury Select Committee and was then promoted to Economic Secretary in 2014. And as anyone paying attention to the many cuts to green policy over the past year will know, the Treasury can have a lot of influence on how we tackle climate change.
What About DECC?
Harsh words were exchanged during the Brexit campaign between Leadsom and her boss Amber Rudd, Energy and Climate Secretary and strong ‘remainer’.
In May, Rudd was reported to have cut contact with Leadsom, leading to many questioning how efficient the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has been during this time. For instance, according to DECC, discussions on the 5th Carbon Budget, due in two days’ time, were still continuing on 15 June.
So it is hard to see how the two might continue to work together. Just days after the vote, however, Rudd and Leadsom were spotted having a “very public reconciliation lunch”.
Being on the losing side of the vote, and the alleged fallout with Leadsom may not bode well for Rudd. There had previously been speculation that Rudd would be promoted.
There’s not much word yet on who might head up a new DECC team should both Leadsom and Rudd move to new positions. But if Leadsom moves either to the Treasury or just up one rung to DECC Secretary of State, it’s likely she’ll still have influence over the UK’s energy and climate policy.
What Does This Mean for Climate Change?
When asked about implications for the Paris Agreement and the EU’s emission trading scheme (EU ETS), a DECC spokesperson said: “There will be no immediate changes and the Government will continue working to deliver its agenda.
“DECC is committed to making sure consumers have secure, affordable and clean energy now and in the future.”
The UK will remain a member of the EU until at least October 2018. Sandbag, an environmental policy campaign organisation, said the UK must continue to work with the EU to deliver ambitious reforms of the EU ETS.
When it comes to what might happen with the Paris Agreement domestically, most commentators don’t see the UK pulling out. Rather, it’s a question of whether a new Prime Minister might kick ratification into the long-grass, or if the current government will push to ratify as soon as possible as a matter of urgency.
Longer term, we can only speculate based upon what those now likely to take power in October have said and done in the past.
And as research by DeSmog UK revealed, there’s a deep-rooted connection between key Brexit campaigners and climate science denying organizations. So much so that they all work in the same building at 55 Tufton Street just steps from Parliament.
Indeed, at the centre of the Brexit debate sit politicians who have long been part of the country’s climate sceptic fringe – from Justice Secretary Michael Gove who once pushed for global warming to be removed from the national geography curriculum to Boris Johnson who’s flirted with climate scepticism in his Telegraph columns, and Owen Paterson who sought to slash climate change spending as environment secretary.
Even Leadsom, upon entering her role as Energy Minister, had to ask whether climate change was real.
Despite this connection, in a speech to the Vote Leave camp in May, Leadsom talked about how the UK is a world leader developing new, low carbon technologies and had world leading emissions reduction ambitions. She said “let me be very clear. Absolutely none of this is threatened by the UK voting to leave the EU on June 23rd.”
She complained about the difficulty of EU regulation in changing the energy mix of the UK and in supporting new renewables and nuclear.
On solar she said: “We’ve also seen how the EU‘s control over VAT levels has meant the Treasury having to hold a review of VAT on solar panels – with a proposal to raise it upwards from 5% to 20%. If we refuse to do it, they can take us to court.”
Whether the low VAT on solar continues along with support for new renewables and nuclear in light of the EU referendum remains to be seen. A spokesperson for the Solar Trade Association said: “Despite this decision to leave the EU, we urge the UK government to maintain its 15% renewable target by 2020 and establish further targets thereafter in line with the Carbon Budgets and the UK’s 80% greenhouse gas reduction target by 2050.”
“We urge the UK to maintain its commitment to the transition to a zero carbon economy throughout this process.”
In addition to Leadsom’s comments in May, a document compiled by ‘Fresh Start’, a group of over 100 Conservative Eurosceptic MP’s led by Leadsom, indicates a broader range of options were on the table ahead of the UK–EU renegotiation earlier this year.
It outlines how critics argue the cost of complying with EU environmental legislation like the EU ETS or its position on aviation emissions “leaves European business uncompetitive, especially in the face of increased economic competition from countries such as China and India, where environmental standards and legislation fall far behind European requirements.”
Leadsom has also long been an ardent supporter of fracking. And on coal she recently sparked controversy after a February meeting where she assured the industry the pledged 2025 coal phase-out was just a consultation and encouraged it to suggest what ‘unabated coal’ means.
But first, there is much for DECC to get done. Government is legally required to announce the level of the fifth carbon budget, which will cover the period 2028-2032 by the end of Thursday this week. Last Friday DECC said that “more information will be released with regards to future departmental work soon.”
And don’t forget that by the end of the year DECC promised to release a new emissions reductions strategy outlining how the UK will meet its climate commitments under the 2008 Climate Change Act.
Photo: DECC via Flickr