Brexit and the Environment: An Unlikely Partnership

The challenge for the UK is to view Brexit as an opportunity in every way possible, and a new report has offered much-needed suggestions about the environment. Clearly, global warming is the greatest threat to the established world order, so an opportunity to reverse climate change should be grasped gratefully. How, though, will this work, and why is Brexit so crucial?

Many seek to portray leaving the EU as negative for the environment — but that is by no means a certainty

The second question is perhaps the most difficult to answer. There is little that Brexit will directly do for the environment, and its greatest advantage is a rather odd one. This is that, for all its downsides, we have a chance to reshape the country in a way that doesn’t come around very often. This could either mean that politicians will fight over it and never get anything done, or that the UK will become a world leader in many fields, finally finding its position.

You see, people outside of the UK may not quite understand the sense of British exceptionalism — there is nowhere with anything quite like it. We like to believe, with good reason, that the UK is the best country in the world. Our political institutions and uncodified constitution enhance this feeling.

However, the fall of the Empire, and our inability to find a new role, has left Britain feeling rather alone, and rather confused. Joining the EU was clearly done somewhat begrudgingly, out of economic necessity. And while leaving will cause damage (due to the hard Brexit pursued by both the PM and Brexiteers), it could be a great opportunity.

Brexit, then, might — just might — give us the confidence to pursue a leadership role, very different to the one we could’ve had in Europe. This will require all of our Great British innovation, our somewhat subdued patriotism, our ingenuity. I can’t see a better place to start than the environment.

Of course, there is the technical unhinging that happens as a result of leaving. The Common Agricultural Policy is an EU directive which puts regulations on farmers to ensure regulatory alignment, so that goods can be traded freely. This is necessary for the EU, whether you disagree with the contents of it or not.

However, after Brexit, to borrow a phrase from the Prime Minister, we will be “taking control of our laws, borders, and money”. Let’s ignore the political nonsense in this statement, and understand that there will be an opportunity to shape farming policy in a more environmentally-friendly manner. The report describes how the UK could incentivise changes to land usage which help to build towards carbon neutrality.

Right, enough optimistic talk. What is it that the report suggests, and what more could we do?

The report highlights five key areas: greening, energy crops, habitats, CO2 capture, and housing.

Greening

Increasing forest cover is a sure-fire way to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. Trees carry out photosynthesis, and this involves taking in CO2 to produce glucose. Therefore, this could create a significant drop in carbon dioxide levels. And while the report suggests 40% extra, there’s no real reason why we couldn’t go with higher.

Greening also creates more habitats for wildlife and attracts tourists — which could be absolutely pivotal in determining our success after Brexit. This one is arguably the easiest to do, and, providing that it is planned carefully, it should be a huge success.

Energy Crops

This proposal could be useful in serving a number of purposes.

One is finding reliable renewable energy sources to fulfil our requirements; a task that is not particularly easy. While using biomass as a source may not be necessary, it could help to support and diversify our future energy mix and be used as an export.

Another benefit is that this method of energy generation (I know, I know — energy can never be made nor destroyed — just work with me here) could be not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative. Plants such as miscanthus absorb carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, removing it from the air. If the CO2 released when the plant is burned were captured, then this method could actually take CO2 from the atmosphere.

Habitats

This recommendation is to restore wetland habitats such as the Fens in the South-East, in order to aid wildlife and absorb carbon. At various points in the past half millennium, the draining of peat bogs and marshes — particularly the former — has led to increased CO2 pollution. Burning peat releases carbon and its restoration will help to absorb the excess CO2 in the present-day atmosphere.

Carbon Capture and Storage

Although these techniques and the corresponding technologies are in their infancy, they are incredibly promising. From farmers removing carbon with rocks to large machines taking CO2 and storing it underground, the effect of the atmospheric carbon levels promises to be great.

One method is for farmers to scatter, at no detriment to themselves (especially if the government use their new-found power to incentivise it), silicate rocks on their land. These will take in carbon dioxide and cause no damage to crops, so it is risk-free for those who choose to do it.

Large machines will be needed, however, for the capture of carbon when it is emitted during industrial processes or from burning biomass. Once the technology is sound, this should be fairly simple and cheap(ish), and Britain has the capacity to store emissions for almost 300 years — long enough to stabilise the climate (that is, if other countries follow).

This will require great investment from the government, for subsidies, research, and the tech itself, but will create jobs and help to stabilise the climate. One of the greatest challenges after Brexit is for politicians to not be too short-sighted, and instead focus on long-term economic prosperity. This could be an excellent first step.

Housing

There are myriad ways in which to make housing more environmentally friendly, such as water recycling units, green roofs, and solar panels. The report, however, suggests something rather eyebrow-raising: using timber to build houses.

Among other benefits, timber is renewable, requires little energy to make, and stores carbon in it, all helping to ensure sustainability: in both the climate and our resources. As long as timber houses are built correctly and safely, they pose no threat or disadvantage to homeowners, and are often more attractive homes to live in.

As it is cheap, it could help to lower the price of housing somewhat and create a more friendly market for the much-discussed “first-time buyers”, at no cost to the government or the private sector.

These suggestions, then, could help to build a sustainable, carbon-neutral Britain by 2050, the year by which the UK needs to meet its targets. They are by no means limited to the UK; every country could look at these suggestions and reasonably adopt them as policy.

There are, of course, issues with the recommendations. One is that the price of carbon is not yet high enough to enact the carbon capture part of the plan; another is that this technology is still embryonic.

However, the housing, habitats, and greening parts could be started immediately with very few issues, shaping the UK’s new role as an environmental leader.

It is this new role that will be so very crucial to the recoiling United Kingdom after Brexit. Ministers must be thinking long-term, rather than caving to pressure about short-term issues. That will be difficult, with wounds in both major parties opening up and becoming infected. Soon, the limbs of the parties — their extreme wings — will fall off, and hopefully then can a sensible, moderate coalition be formed.

It could happen very differently, with the two major parties instead trying to hang onto their gangrenous arms and legs (I realise that this metaphor has gone on far too long). I’m not massively optimistic about the future of UK politics — nor its link to the environment — but, with a little luck, and some radical environmental policy, the future could be bright.

Politics nerd, policy wonk | Founder, medium.com/politics-fast-and-slow | Editor, politika.org.uk | twitter.com/dave_olsen16 | Policy Paper: https://rb.gy/7coyj

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