BY: PROFESSOR TANJA SREBOTNJAK, DIRECTOR OF THE HIXON CENTER
This is Part 3 of the Hixon Center’s three-part series (Part 1; Part 2) on the implications of the Brexit vote for the environment and climate change. Professor Tanja Srebotnjak discusses implications of the UK’s parting from the EU as it pertains to global action on climate change.
Part 3: Implications for Global Climate Action
Saturday, December 12, 2015 marked the end of a long day of negotiations at the Paris meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Surprising to many, France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, suddenly gaveled to a close a summit that had come within an inch of disintegrating over differing legal definitions between the words ‘should’ and ‘shall.’ In the end, representatives from 195 nations and the European Union agreed to the less binding ‘should’ and happily declared the negotiations a success. Why? For the first time, an international agreement was reached that would compel almost every nation to reducing climate-altering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
As usual, the European Union negotiated as a bloc. This occurs on the basis of internally agreed effort-sharing, which binds Member States to annual reductions in GHG emissions. In the EU’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), submitted in preparation for the Paris summit, the 28 Member States committed to a binding joint GHG emissions reduction target of at least 40 percent by 2030 (from 1990 levels). This target was translated to varying percentage reductions for each Member State based on their wealth and economic growth trajectories.
Consequently, Britain’s short-term emissions reduction target is 16-percent by 2020 – one of the largest amongst the 28 country bloc. However, the recent Brexit vote now raises a serious question: what will be the impact of the forthcoming divorce of the UK from the EU on international efforts to combat climate change?
First, suggesting that the Brexit will doom reaching the goals set out in the Paris Accord is premature. Although the Agreement has not yet entered into force, it will do so automatically when at least 55 countries, representing at least 55% of global GHG emissions, have ratified it. These are not insurmountable thresholds.
With the Brexit, the EU will have to review its joint INDC and adjust it to reflect the departure of a major economy that had committed to substantial emissions reduction. To retain the bloc’s reduction target (40% by 2030), some countries will need to shoulder greater reductions or limit increases in GHG emissions. How the EU will recalibrate remains to be seen. However, since the EU does not want to surrender its climate leadership role, it already initiated the legislative process to ratify the agreement as a bloc and is expected to see it through, with or without the UK. That said, each Member State’s legislature also needs to ratify the Agreement, a process that depends on unique domestic factors and could be influenced by an increase in nationalistic and anti-European sentiment in some countries following the Brexit vote.
Second, the Paris Agreement will not lose legal status as a result of the UK’s leaving the EU. Indeed, Britain will be free to submit its own, new INDC to the UNFCCC Secretariat, but the question is: would the UK’s new commitment be equivalent to, stronger or weaker than its prior commitment as an EU Member? A few days after the Brexit vote, the British Government presented its 5th carbon budget, covering the period 2028-2032. The budget set a reduction target of 57 percent, a larger percentage than promised by the EU. However, those who supported the Brexit also favor less ambitious efforts to tackle climate change, and may even revise or dismantle Britain’s impressive 2008 Climate Change Act that mandates the preparation of these detailed carbon budgets.
Even if the UK reduces its climate change efforts, the Paris Agreement can still move forward and achieve much-needed GHG emissions. As of now, 26 parties have ratified the Agreement (out of 55 needed), representing 39 percent of total anthropogenic GHG emissions (thanks to the recent ratifications by China and the United States). Clearly, more ratifications by big emitters such as India and the EU are needed to push the Agreement over the finish line but Mexico, Canada and Australia have publicly stated that they will join this year, while India, Russia, Japan, Saudi Arabia and New Zealand show positive signs towards doing the same.
Whatever happens to climate change policy in Europe, climate action on the international stage is certainly losing a major voice. A country’s clout in international negotiations is closely tied to its total GHG emissions. As a member of the EU, Britain was part of an economic giant responsible for nearly 11 percent of total global GHG emissions (the 3rd highest after China and the U.S.); alone it represents a mere 1.4 percent. Thus, its voice as a global climate leader and ally to those favoring strong targets and actions will be diminished once the exit is completed.
Aside from the Paris Agreement, other climate and energy actions may also suffer from Britain’s departure. The country is currently bound by EU energy and climate law, including a 15 percent renewable energy target. That will change once the exit is finalized, and unless the UK’s new government continues or strengthens existing policies supporting the de-carbonization of the economy, additional progress might stall. The dissolution of the Department for Energy and Climate Change and consequent repackaging of its responsibilities into the new Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy signals a shift in priorities towards businesses and deregulation. Investors dislike uncertainty, and their enthusiasm for major renewable energy projects (e.g., offshore wind and large-scale solar installations) is already waning because of likely protracted exit negotiations.
Similarly, without the UK, the EU is now a less influential player in global climate politics. As a major ally of the U.S., Britain has mediated across the Atlantic for meaningful and effective climate action, simultaneously calling on the U.S. to live up to its innovation and technological prowess and pushing Europe to adopt more market-driven policy instruments. Without a membership card to the ‘Club Européen’, Britain will have no voice at the EU table and its role as a mediator between the U.S. and the European Commission will be limited.
In conclusion, Britain’s exit from the EU has repercussions for global climate action that could range from minor to more substantial disruption. While a lot depends on the future of British climate change policy, so far the actions of the new UK government do not inspire confidence in continued British leadership on the issue.
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 UNFCCC (2015) COP21 meeting. (last accessed 09-02-2016).
 UNFCCC (2015). Submission by Latvia and the European Commission on behalf of the European Union and its Member States (PDF). (last accessed 09-02-2016).
 European Union (2014). European Council 2014 Conclusions (PDF). (last accessed 09-02-2016).
 Wikipedia. List of countries by greenhouse gas emissions. (last accessed 09-02-2016).
 The Guardian (20 February 2016). UK on track to meet its renewable energy targets. (last accessed 09-03-2016).
 The Wall Street Journal (July 20, 2016) Britain’s Theresa May Begins Sounding Out Europe on Brexit Negotiating Position (last accessed 09-02-2016).