How could post-Brexit trade deals impact the UK’s climate leadership position?

A new report, commissioned by the ECF and led by  Dr Markus Gehring at the University of Cambridge, examines the proposed UK exit arrangements and sets out how the Brexit agreement would need substantial changes to avoid damaging environmental rollbacks and instead set a new gold standard for climate change provisions in trade deals.


Brexit reaches into almost every area of policy, especially the environment. More than half of the UK’s planned cuts in carbon pollution are bound up with membership of the EU.[1] Despite this, we have seen too little focus on how the UK’s established leadership position on climate change and clean energy could be impacted by future trade deals.

A failure to understand and defend climate protections within post-Brexit trade agreements, including any UK-EU or UK-US trade deal, risks endangering the high environmental standards that Britain has become known for around the world.

Led by Dr Markus Gehring, leading trade law experts at the University of Cambridge have bridged this gap in knowledge. Their new paper examines the proposed UK exit arrangements and sets out how the Brexit agreement would need substantial changes to avoid damaging environmental rollbacks and instead set a new gold standard for climate change provisions in trade deals.

The end of climate symbiosis between the UK and EU?

For the most part, UK environmental policy is EU environmental policy. A staggering 80% of the UK’s environmental laws have been forged through our membership of the EU.[2] On climate change, EU policies have been responsible for 40% of the UK’s emissions reductions since 1990 – a figure that is expected to rise to 55% by 2030.[3] If the UK no longer enforces these laws when Brexit occurs, it could blow a hole in the country’s existing climate plan. This could have a potentially profound effect on the rest of the EU27.

Surely the UK’s own laws will sustain the country’s leadership position on climate, irrespective of Brexit?

Many believe that the UK’s own domestic laws, enshrined in the Climate Change Act, will be sufficient protection against any significant weakening of Britain’s effort to address global warming. This misunderstands that many of the policies designed to achieve the carbon targets set out in this law – relating to clean energy, clean air and product standards, for example – stem from the EU and may no longer be enforced or extended after Brexit.

An additional risk is that UK politicians may choose to ‘trade away’ existing environmental safeguards in exchange for perceived growth opportunities arising from new trade negotiations. President Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, for example, has signalled that a US trade deal may be contingent on the UK allowing more gas guzzlers into the British market.[4] Trade negotiations, once a major target of global environmental protests, could once again become a key political battleground for campaigners.

Will trade deals become the next political battleground on climate?

To defend climate progress, continued independent enforcement of high environmental standards must be a political priority in future trade negotiations. Yet the Department for International Trade recently published a proposal on that fails to mention any requirement for environmental impact assessments within potential new trade deals.[5]

It seems the debate is just getting started. French President Emmanuel Macron has signalled that delivery on the Paris Agreement should be a condition of all future EU trade deals.[6] Meanwhile, influential Conservative Party politicians are seeking to disentangle the UK from many EU environmental rules.[7] We hope this paper is a useful contribution to the discussion.

To read the report, please click here.

[1] Committee on Climate Change, Meeting Carbon Budgets – Implications of Brexit for UK climate policy (2016)

[2] Friends of the Earth, No-deal Brexit: environmental impact (2019)

[3] Committee on Climate Change, Meeting Carbon Budgets – Implications of Brexit for UK climate policy (2016)

[4] Business Insider, US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross on post-Brexit trade with UK (2017)

[5] Department for International Trade, Processes for making free trade agreements after the United Kingdom has left the European Union (2019)

[6] Bloomberg, Macron Says No Trade Deals Without Climate Treaty Compliance (2018)

[7] BBC news, Boris Johnson sets out his ‘Super Canada’ Brexit plan (2018)