Britain has been a consistently progressive driver of climate policy in the European Union. Given the EU’s significance in international climate change negotiations, Britain’s vote to leave the union has implications both for EU policy and for the global Paris climate agreement struck last year.
The UK has been crucial to EU climate change policy in ways that have evolved over time. Britain’s strong domestic emissions reductions have made more ambitious EU burden-sharing targets possible. This in turn gave credibility to the idea of Europe as a global leader on climate ambition – something that has become a cherished part of many European citizens' self-identity. Britain has also been a crucial bridge between the United States and Europe in the United Nations' climate negotiation process.
Yet the EU’s climate policy ambition has arguably already declined over the past decade as it has struggled with a rising tide of resistance from more recalcitrant member states, chiefly Poland but also including, at various times, Italy, Hungary and Romania. Assuming that the EU manages to stave off any further disintegration, these voices will likely grow louder.
Poland’s recalcitrance on climate change policy has already challenged the EU’s leadership credentials, particularly since last year’s Polish elections, which installed a new conservative, Eurosceptic government.
While it has not always succeeded, British leadership has been an important balancing voice against these reluctant climate actors. Brexit has worrying consequences not just for EU climate policy but also for global progress on climate change.
One of the reasons for Britain’s strong influence is its consistency across government on climate policy. This stands in contrast with other countries such as Germany and France, and even the European Commission itself, where internal divisions have sometimes meant that different ministries have pursued conflicting goals. The clarity of the UK position has been strategically important for achieving progressive EU climate policy.
Examples of British contributions to EU climate leadership abound. The UK helped broker a crucial compromise with the United States on the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. In 2005, then prime minister Tony Blair made climate change the priority of the UK’s presidency of the EU and G8, lending clout to the EU’s claims of leadership. The UK helped shape the EU’s diplomatic efforts in Paris last year, and there were high hopes for the impact of its EU presidency in 2017 on climate policy.
In practical terms, the UK is the EU’s second-largest economy and its second-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, after Germany in both cases. Climate change policy is an area of “shared competence” between the EU and member states, and UK climate policy is deeply embedded within broader EU frameworks such as its Emissions Trading System.
Domestic UK emissions reductions have historically been crucial to the EU’s achievement of its targets. This is due to Britain’s relatively large share of total emissions and to the UK’s pursuit of ambitious domestic targets. The UK has legislated for steeper emissions targets than required of it under EU agreements and is aiming for an 80% reduction on 1990 levels by mid-century. Along with Sweden and Denmark, it has consistently pushed for more ambitious EU-level targets.
Britain’s contribution to EU climate targets
The European Union’s official pledge to the Paris climate negotiations promised a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, relative to 1990 levels, by 2030. The UK was a key player in the internal negotiations that decided on this target. In fact, it pushed hard for a higher target of 50%.
A Brexit would also make it harder for the EU to meet its target, as the UK’s own significant emission cuts are factored into the overall target. The Paris Agreement does not allow countries to change their submitted climate pledge, except to increase it.
The EU may therefore have to work out how to distribute its 2030 reductions among its 27 remaining members without the UK’s contributions. This will be particularly challenging given the relative size of the UK contribution. Even without this complication, the EU will face the need to re-assert its capacity for leadership on climate change without one of its most ambitious members.
The future of Europe’s Emissions Trading System could also be steered by Poland after the resignation of Britain’s Ian Duncan as head of the committee overseeing the ETS review in the wake of last Friday’s referendum result.
This is not to say that Britain’s impact on EU climate change policy has always been advantageous. The UK’s close ties with the previously recalcitrant United States and its pro-market approach have frustrated the EU’s attempts to find a unified voice on climate change in the past. However, these characteristics have also enabled Britain to play a crucial bridging role between Eastern and Western Europe in internal EU negotiations. And this loss will worry those hoping that EU leadership on climate change will continue.
What does this mean for the Paris Agreement?
The EU has struggled to demonstrate the ambition required to hold the mantle of climate leader in recent years, even with the UK’s full support. The US and China’s increased engagement in global climate negotiations has meant fewer opportunities for the EU to make good on its leadership rhetoric, while the economic crisis and internal divisions have created extra hurdles.
Climate laggards within the EU can now draw out the ratification of the Paris Agreement and the renewed negotiations over how to divide the 2030 emission targets between members. Poland has long argued that the internal burden-sharing arrangements must be worked out before it will ratify the Paris Agreement.
The United Nations' outgoing lead climate negotiator, Christina Figueres, has attempted to calm fears of EU climate policy derailment by urging Britain and the EU to continue working together even after Britain leaves the union.
It is indeed likely that Britain will remain somewhat embedded in the complex architecture of EU climate policy. Iceland, a non-EU member included in much of Europe’s climate policy framework, provides a potential model for how this might work in practice.
But whatever arrangements are made, losing one of its most progressive voices on climate change will be a blow to Europe’s leadership credentials.
Authors: Natalie Latter, PhD Scholar, University of Western Australia