The Referendum Fallout – Rising concerns for nature conservation and climate change

Alarm bells ring as new PM abolishes Department of Energy and Climate Change

But some environmentalists take a more positive view

July 20th 2016

Environmentalists were quick to respond to the result of the EU referendum last month, which was held on June 23rd 2016. The turnout was 72.21% of the registered electorate, with 51.89% of the turnout voting for the UK to leave the EU and 48.11% voting to remain. [1]

Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth CEO, issued a ‘red alert’ for the environment and said in The Guardian that around 70% of the UK’s environmental safeguards are now at risk. Mike Clarke, CEO of the RSPB, said nature transcends national boundaries and expressed the organisation’s belief that it needs a common set of international standards to enable it to thrive. In a blog post, he says: “We need clean air and water, and we want an attractive countryside rich in wildlife. It is essential that we do not lose the current hard-won level of legal protection. Given the current state of nature, we should be looking to improve the implementation of existing legal protection and, where necessary, to increase it.” The Independent reminded its readers that the environment secretary Liz Truss signed an open letter to the newspaper claiming a vote to leave would be “a backwards step for the protection of the countryside.”

What future for the EU’s Nature Directives?

Veteran campaigner Sir David Attenborough expressed his sadness at the referendum decision to The Guardian and voiced his hopes that collaboration on conservation issues will transcend political divisions. [2] He also hoped that the UK will continue to enact the EU’s Nature Directives. The EU’s Nature Directives, consisting of the 1979 Birds Directive and the 1992 Habitats Directive, form the basis for nature conservation across the EU and place a responsibility on all member states to protect the most threatened species and the most important sites. Both directives are currently under review and the World Wildlife Fund has managed to obtain a consultants’ report on whether the laws are “fit for purpose.” As explained in an article by Alistair Taylor, Senior Policy Officer for the RSPB, the report confirms that the Nature Directives are “delivering for nature.” The report states: “The balance of the evidence shows that the Directives are fit for purpose, and clearly demonstrate EU added value.”

The RSPB also points out that the Directives are intended to give effect to EU commitments under international conventions and agreements, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Convention on European Wildlife, among others: “While leaving the EU may mean the UK is no longer bound by EU environmental policy objectives, our international obligations under these and other international environmental treaties will remain. It is vital that any emerging legal protection for our most special places for wildlife across the UK is consistent with international best practice, and at least equivalent to that currently provided by the EU Nature Directives.”

“It’s often UK interpretation and implementation that’s more of a problem than EU regulation,” says MPA CEO

Business leaders have also expressed concerns about the referendum result. Nigel Jackson, CEO of the Mineral Products Association (MPA), said in a statement: “We are not convinced that any objective evaluation of EU ‘red tape’ has been undertaken and certainly no informed assessment of 43 years of transposition of EU regulation into UK law. We believe that it will not be easy, quick or even desirable to try and unpack the current corpus of regulation without knowing what will supersede it. It is often UK interpretation and implementation that is more of a problem than EU regulation and the distinction needs to be clear.” He also expressed the MPA’s concern that decisions on major energy and infrastructure projects could be at risk of further delay because of the tasks now facing the Government. “Key strategic initiatives such as the Northern Powerhouse must remain high on the Government’s agenda,” he said.

Brian Berry, CEO of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), also expressed a concern about the impact of the decision on infrastructure projects as well as house building, and issued a reminder that the construction industry faces a skills shortage: “The UK construction industry has been heavily reliant on migrant workers from Europe for decades now,” he said. “If ministers want to meet their house building and infrastructure objectives, they have to ensure that the new system of immigration is responsive to the needs of industry. At the same time, we need to ensure that we invest in our own home-grown talent through apprenticeship training. We need to train more construction apprentices so we are not overly reliant on migrant workers from Europe or further afield.”

Ministers express concern and astonishment as the Department of Energy and Climate Change is abolished

Prior to the vote, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas called the referendum a “climate referendum” and warned that leaving the EU could be detrimental to tackling climate change. [3] Alarm bells have now started ringing with the news that the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is to be abolished and that its functions will be transferred to other government departments, principally the new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The decision came on July 14th following the appointment of the new Prime Minister Theresa May and the subsequent ministerial reshuffle, with Andrea Leadsom MP being appointed the new Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Angus MacNeil MP, Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, whose role is to hold the Government to account on its energy policies and their implementation, was swift to issue a statement, declaring his astonishment at the Prime Minister’s decision. “DECC’s disappearance raises urgent questions,” he said. “To whom falls the central statutory obligation, contained in the Climate Change Act 2008, to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions by 80% from their 1990 baseline? Which department will take responsibility for the energy and climate aspects of negotiations to leave the EU? Who will champion de-carbonisation in Cabinet? Who will drive innovation in the energy sector?”

In his statement, he also pointed out that the Paris agreement on climate change still requires ratification by the UK Government, and the fifth carbon budget is still to be set in law. On a more positive note, he said there will be no immediate change to the remit of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, which can only be altered by the House of Commons, and he pledged his determination to see the continuation of effective Parliamentary scrutiny of energy and climate change issues.

“Shocking news,” says Friends of the Earth CEO

Former ministers and environmental groups have been quick to criticise the decision to abolish the department because of what it says about the Government’s attempts to tackle climate change. Friends of the Earth CEO Craig Bennett commented: “This is shocking news. Less than a day into the job and it appears that the new Prime Minister has already downgraded action to tackle climate change, one of the biggest threats we face.” Other groups expressing similar views include the Green Party, the New Economic Foundation think tank, and ClientEarth, a group of environment lawyers who won a legal challenge in 2015 concerning the Government’s record on reducing air pollution.

New department will deliver a “comprehensive industrial strategy,” says Minister

The revamped Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will be led by former Communities Secretary Greg Clark MP, who served as Shadow Energy and Climate Secretary for the Conservative Party from 2008 to 2010. In a press statement, he said: “I am thrilled to have been appointed to lead this new department delivering a comprehensive industrial strategy, leading government’s relationship with business, furthering our world-class science base, delivering affordable, clean energy and tackling climate change.”

The BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin points to Greg Clark’s credentials as a writer of papers on a low-carbon economy and says his opening remarks suggest an alternative and more positive interpretation of the decision to abolish DECC. “If you really intend climate change to drive an industrial transformation,” he says, “why not embrace it within a powerful department that’s developing the sort of industrial strategy needed to forge a genuine low-carbon economy?”

An opportunity for a “joined-up” climate policy, say environmentalists

Roger Harrabin’s view is echoed by a number of environmental groups who also provide a more positive view about the decision to merge DECC with the Department of Business. Richard Black, Director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said: “Greg Clark is an excellent appointment. He understands climate change, and has written influential papers on the benefits of Britain developing a low-carbon economy. Importantly, he sees that economic growth and tackling climate change are bedfellows not opponents – and he now has the opportunity to align British industry, energy and climate policy in a way that’s never been done before.”

Richard Howard from the Policy Exchange think tank commented: “Rather than bemoaning the demise of DECC, we should embrace the creation of BEIS. DECC has always been regarded as something of a minnow in departmental terms. By merging with BIS, energy and climate change issues can be elevated to a much higher level politically.” Juliet Davenport, CEO of the renewable energy supplier Good Energy, said: “In some ways, the name above the door of the civil service department doesn’t matter.” David Nussbaum, CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (UK), said: “The new Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy can be a real powerhouse for change, joining up Whitehall teams to progress the resilient, sustainable, and low carbon infrastructure that we urgently need.” [4]

However, Roger Harrabin also says that the new department faces formidable problems getting the UK on track with its long-term ambitions to cut carbon: “Decisions on Hinkley Point nuclear station and the government’s low carbon strategy due later this year will offer genuine pointers to the significance of the death of DECC,” he says.

DECC’s track record

DECC’s track record on tackling climate change has given environmentalists a great deal of concern in recent times. In an article for, George Ogleby and Matt Mace catalogue the decisions that have caused mounting controversy: “DECC has recently faced strong opposition for subsidy cuts for onshore wind and solar; the scrapping of a tax exemption for renewable energy; the postponement of the next Contracts for Difference (CfD) auction; the removal of zero-carbon homes standards; scrapping the Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) completion; the reform of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), and the sell-off of the Green Investment Bank.”

It remains to be seen whether the new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will manage to achieve a better record.


[1] For full details of the results, see BBC News. 27.79% of the registered electorate did not turn out to vote, which means that 62.53% of the registered electorate either voted to remain in the EU or abstained from voting, whilst 37.47% of the registered electorate voted to leave (clearly a minority). There is now a legal dispute on the status of the referendum, with some legal experts pointing out that the referendum is not legally binding but merely advisory. The new Government, however, has said it is committed to carrying out the wishes of the people, as expressed by those who voted.
[2] Also reported in The Independent.
[3] Ibid [2].
[4] See the article in for more responses to the announcement.


Photograph: View across Llyn Morwynion, looking east towards Rhinog Fawr (Gwynedd, Wales) © Copyright Nigel Brown and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Located roughly in the centre of the Snowdonia National Park, North Wales, Rhinog is a designated Special Area of Conservation, protected under the EU Habitats Directive. The listing on the Joint Nature Conservation Committee website says Rhinog is representative of upland European dry heaths and contains high-quality examples of
old sessile oak woods, among other features.