How can post-Brexit Britain tackle climate change?

At 11pm on Friday 31 January, the UK officially left the European Union, as Brexit came into effect. Some celebrated, others mourned – the latter especially for the anticipated loss of the UK’s climate ambition and biodiversity restoration. Brexit threatens some of our key environmental protections and regulations, which must now be renegotiated. But if we manage the transition effectively, it also offers opportunities to strengthen our policies in tackling the climate emergency. How can post-Brexit Britain tackle climate change?

Global COP26 climate talks preparations in post-Brexit Britain didn’t get off to a great start on Friday night, when it was announced that Claire Perry O’Neill will no longer be at the helm as COP26 President. While the reasons for her shock sacking remain uncertain, one source reported to The Guardian: “She didn’t seem to get that this is a diplomatic job. The senior team of officials in the unit couldn’t work with her and her erratic behaviour and poor performance has spooked key stakeholders in the UK and internationally. She had to go.”

Now we await her replacement. COP26 in Glasgow is likely to be the most important climate change conference since COP21 in 2015 which produced the landmark Paris Agreement. Some have therefore suggested that a “heavy-hitting minister” is needed to reflect the unprecedented ambition that we must see from the negotiations.

Whoever is eventually chosen – whether a former minister such as William Hague, or someone more independent – they must acknowledge how crucial these talks will be in forging the direction of climate action for the next decade. Where COP25 failed, COP26 must succeed.

Clean transport

Despite the shaky start for the UK as COP26 host, today at the National Science Museum in London, Boris Johnson labelled 2020 a “year of climate action”. During an event marking the launch of COP26, the Prime Minister announced his decision to bring forward the UK ban on selling new petrol, diesel and hybrid cars by five years to 2035, at the latest.

Environmental charities have cautiously welcomed the announcement. Helen Clarkson, CEO of The Climate Group, states: “We are glad to see a more ambitious target from the UK government. However, we believe that this could still be sooner – and that to be a global leader, especially post-Brexit, a 2030 phase-out commitment is required; without this, we risk being out of step with our international peers.”

With transport responsible for the largest share of the UK’s emissions, hopefully a broader agenda around decarbonising the transport and energy sectors will be something we soon see more of.

Biodiversity boost

Last month the government unveiled an updated Environment Bill to “deliver thriving natural spaces for local communities”, as part of plans to ensure we maintain and improve environmental protections as the UK leaves the EU. Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers announced plans for a Nature Recovery Network to help protect natural habitats and give communities a greater say in protecting local trees.

Beyond the UK 2020 is also a critical year for commitments to biodiversity restoration, with China hosting the 15th meeting of the conference on Biological Diversity one month before COP26. In a speech today alongside Sir David Attenborough at the COP26 launch, the Prime Minister highlighted the importance of the event: “We in the UK will do everything we can to support our Chinese friends hosting the UN Biodiversity Conference in the autumn. Because we must reverse the appalling loss of habitats and species.

“It’s only by repairing the damage to the natural world, and restoring the balance between humanity and nature, that we can address the problems of climate change.”

While the question of the COP26 Presidency remains unanswered, Boris Johnson’s speech at the COP26 launch event this week made clear the UK is ready to lead. The ‘year of action’ branding is bold. But the UK government must do more than say the right words. 2020 is more than just another year of action.

We require unparalleled leadership from all nations that goes far beyond the Paris Agreement, or we risk not just failing the COP process, or one country, but we risk failing everyone on the planet who deserves a safe future. How can post-Brexit Britain tackle climate change? With real leaders. Only 2020 will tell if Boris Johnson and the UK has what it takes.

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