BioEnergy Outlook: Brexit And Climate Policy

Ted Niblock

Ted Niblock
BioCycle July 2016, Vol. 57, No. 6, p. 38

The recent decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (EU) may not seem very relevant to BioCycle readers, but a political and economic disruption of this magnitude affects the entire world. And the effort to combat climate change is a global one. In anticipation of the UK’s possible exit from the EU, climate and renewable energy think tanks conducted impact assessments prior to the vote. This month’s column reflects takeaways from those assessments.

In the case of UK climate policy, the decision is besmirched with tragic irony. Brexit supporters’ primary reason for their decision to leave the EU was to free the UK from the meddling regulations and rules of the “Eurocrats.” In the case of climate policy, however, the UK was a leader in pushing for ambitious EU policies, and its departure will reduce the level of commitment by remaining members. Even worse, the UK’s absence will echo through global climate discussions in ways that may complicate or even drag down progress.

According to a March 2016 Institute for European Environmental Policy Report evaluating the possible effects of a vote to leave, the UK has always been “a consistent voice in favor of overall climate ambition,” and without it “the balance of forces inside the EU would shift towards lower climate ambition, driven by Poland’s increased importance.” The UK has consistently frustrated efforts by climate skeptic member states to form blocks of opposition that could undermine policy.

The EU has also lost a huge contributor to its international legitimacy as a climate policy player. Supporters of climate policy in the U.S. mostly view the European Union as a leader, a place where policies to control the emission of greenhouse gases are more advanced than in the U.S., and where market signals from policymakers are clearer. While this is certainly true, there is a way in which the EU confuses more than it helps, and that is at the global level. Every commitment or engagement by the EU must then pass through the EU parliament, which makes the U.S. Congress look streamlined and efficient.

At every global conference, therefore, the voice of the UK representative was twofold. First, they were often key contributors to the conference as a whole, pushing for ambitious goals. Just as important, however, was the implicit signal that the UK would return with the rest of the EU to its internal deliberations and continue to advocate for lofty goals. As a result, the global community could place a bit more faith in the end result of the EU’s tortured and cantankerous process. This will no longer happen, and even past agreements might be in danger, since the resolve to follow through on commitments will no longer be bolstered by the UK Members of European Parliament.

This in turn will corrode the leadership ability of the EU in general, and it will have much less influence in pushing for the increases in emission cuts needed from the U.S., China and India. The UK representatives will still act, of course, and it is possible they will have the same level of influence. They might even excel, and be free to form new and different alliances on issues. Greater agility might lead to greater effectiveness. Given the general propensity for Britain to punch above its weight in international affairs, with or without the EU, there is hope that the global community will not lose its leadership.

Impacts On Biogas And Compost

Part of Brexit supporters’ rationale for leaving the EU was to get relief from what they perceived to be stringent environment and climate requirements. While this effect is probably overstated, there could be some weakening of UK environmental and renewable energy policy as a result of leaving the EU. That in turn could have some impact on biogas project development — but it is very early for solid predictions.

One example is the curious contradiction of remaining in the EU emissions trading system. The UK is likely to stay in voluntarily (the system has other non-EU members); however, as noted above, the loss of the UK as an advocate within the EU is predicted to result in weaker caps in that system. Therefore the UK will make the entire EU program weaker, but stay in, which is just one of the mind-bending unintended consequences likely to come from Brexit.

There also might be a fertilizer discussion, since, according to a 2015 report, the UK was planning to override its domestic “end of waste criteria,” by following a European Commission regulation with regard to fertilizers (EC 2003/2003). That change was expected to bring organic fertilizers under EU control and thereby disrupt UK composting and AD markets. In the wake of the Brexit vote, the UK may choose to keep the existing system (although nothing is clear yet). Therefore, to the extent biogas developers were holding off on pursuing projects in light of the changes coming from adoption of the EU rule, they may want to revisit those projects.

Overall, when it comes to climate policy, the Brexit vote will provide little benefit to UK voters seeking less regulation, and will degrade the EU’s effectiveness as a world leader on combating climate change.

Ted Niblock develops biogas projects for NewAg Development.

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