Brexit hot air causes climate problems

Following the vote to leave the EU, the UK’s energy and climate change policy faces major changes – not least in relation to the nuclear power industry.

hinkley point england
As the UK’s energy and climate change policy sits on a vacuum post Brexit, plans for new nuclear reactors to be built in Hinkley Point in southwest England may have to wait to see the light of day. Image: Tomek Nacho, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The shock waves felt round the world at the UK’s decision in a referendum to leave the European Union will have unexpected consequences for some major projects linked to climate change.

Plans for four giant nuclear reactors to be built in England by the French are almost certain to be scrapped because opposition among trade unions in France has hardened since last week’s vote.

A second major project − a third runway at Heathrow, London’s busiest airport − was due to be given the go-ahead on 7 July, but that decision is almost certain to be postponed. Boris Johnson, a leading contender to succeed David Cameron as Conservative prime minister, is vehemently opposed to the proposed runway.

The decision by 51.9 per cent of UK voters to reject continued EU membership was partly about immigration, but also a revolt against regulations from Brussels, which some saw as oppressive.

These regulations include targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to improve air quality. And although none of these was actively discussed during the referendum campaign, the UK now has an opportunity to write its own rules on climate change and will not be bound by the EU targets on renewables, energy efficiency and emissions reduction.

Unlikely priorities

With the rightwing politicians firmly in charge in the Conservative party after the Brexit vote, it is unlikely that halting global warming or cleaning up car emissions will be among their priorities.

The EU has three key climate targets: a 20 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions from their 1990 levels by 2020; 20 per cent of energy to come from renewables by the same date; and a 20 per cent improvement in energy efficiency.

All 28 member states were involved in agreeing the targets, but the UK − along with Germany − played a greater role than some other states because its industrial base is shrinking and it has vast potential for offshore wind power and other renewables.

These longer-term problems for the UK are not currently on the agenda because they are dwarfed by the immediate political crisis. The two major parties, Conservative and Labour, are in the midst of leadership battles, and until these are decided there is a policy vacuum.

When they will be resolved is anyone’s guess, but time is rolling by and Électricité de France (EDF) is due to make a “final investment decision” in September to build two 1,650 MW nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in southwest England. They were expected to be followed by two more to the east of London.

The Hinkley decision, already postponed repeatedly, has been in doubt for months because of the parlous financial state of EDF and the increasing opposition of a group of French trade unions, whose members fear that the building of nuclear power stations in the UK would divert much-needed investment away from home.

There are also question marks about whether the nuclear design is viable at all, since construction delays and cost over-runs have dogged the prototypes, and none is yet producing electricity.

The backlash against the British decision to leave the EU will not affect the decision, according to the immediate reaction from EDF and the French government, but the chances of the scheme being given the go-ahead in September now seem remote.

Mycle Schneider, an independent nuclear and energy industry analyst based in Paris, says that the Brexit vote would hand EDF “the perfect occasion to pull the plug on Hinkley Point without losing face”. He believes that the Brexit vote represents a “disaster” for EDF’s plan, and that a decision to press ahead with Hinkley Point is unimaginable at the moment.

Private investors

Angus Brendan MacNeil, chairman of the UK’s House of Commons energy and climate select committee, and a Scottish National Party Member of Parliament, says that the scheme is “bedevilled by uncertainty”. Until last week, EDF was investing in the UK as another EU member state, but that is no longer the case.

Until the Brexit vote, the UK government was committed to building 10 new nuclear power stations as part of its “low carbon” plan for the energy sector. The programme always seemed improbable, given the state of the nuclear industry worldwide, but getting private investors to support such a policy now seems even less likely.

One of the unlooked-for side-effects of the decision is to take the UK outside the Euratom Treaty that safeguards nuclear materials from misuse. Since the UK has the largest stock of plutonium in the world, and a large trade in nuclear materials with Europe, the US and Japan, this creates serious problems over who now regulates the industry.

Meanwhile, the Heathrow runway decision might benefit from being freed from the EU air pollution rules aimed at preventing air quality around the airport continuing to breach World Health Organisation safety limits as it expands.

On the other hand, with the UK outside the European Union, demand for air travel might drop, undermining any case for a new runway.

This story was published with permission from Climate News Network.

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