What would Brexit mean for efforts to tackle climate change?

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If, as according to superstition, wood provides reassurance when touched, then the Climate Change Act 2008 performs the same consoling function when it comes to Brexit and UK climate policy. “Leaving the EU would rob us of the chance to over come the challenge” of climate change, Ed Milliband said last week. Yet if he contemplates the solid legal fact of the Act he may, temporarily at least, find his fears subsiding. This is because the Act, regardless of EU membership status, commits the country to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. But however ambitious this seems, if he contemplates long enough, Ed’s pessimism will seem to him once more well-placed.

For a start, although the 2050 goal seems to lock Britain in long-term, in the global context of achieving net zero emissions some time before 2100, it leaves fifty years unaccounted for. As Charlotte Burns of the University of York points out, one justification for the stringent carbon budgets in the Act was that the UK would be required to meet them anyway under EU law. Out of the EU, and outside its obligations, it follows that carbon legislation for post-2050 may not be so tough. Then there’s the possibility we don’t adhere to the Act in the period to 2050. Even within the EU there are concerns about whether we will meet our carbon budgets. Out of the EU this lack of commitment could transform into something much worse: a watering down of the Act or even, as UKIP and some Tories advocate, repeal.

renewables graphIt’s worth remembering too that the UK’s climate change mitigation efforts aren’t just determined by our own Act: renewables targets are set by European directive. Under the Renewables Directive, 15% of all energy consumed in the UK must come from renewable sources by 2020 – and another policy commits the the EU as a whole to meeting 27% of final energy consumption through renewables by 2030. Although support for renewables is implicit in the Climate Change Act, EU legislation makes it explicit and clearly signposts the direction of travel for the industry. Without it, Britain’s green industry would have only the mixed messages of the UK government, investor confidence would be further undermined and a question mark placed and over its future.

The position of renewables could also suffer because of Brexit’s implications for energy security. Decreased interconnectivity of supply, reduced harmonisation of energy markets and less investment in the UK by multinational companies could all be consequences of leaving according to a House of Commons briefing paper. The resulting increase in energy insecurity would “increase focus on all aspects of UK generation” it is thought. In other words it may become more important to generate enough electricity by whatever means – including via gas and coal – than to meet renewables goals.

Brexit also means participation in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme would no longer be compulsory. The 1,000 or so UK installations which currently take part could in theory continue to do so under a new voluntary agreement, but it is equally possible they will simply exploit a new freedom to emit once outside the cap and trade scheme.

Beyond all this, of course, is the fact that global warming is (no surprises here) a global problem. It’s important for the UK, as the 15th largest emitter, to cut emissions, but we also need other countries to do the same. In the past Britain has challenged the EU to up the emission-cuts ante, pushing back the horizon of ambition. Outside the EU there is little chance of this or indeed of exerting any influence on the rest of the continent’s mitigation policy. Yes the UNFCCC offers a framework for the UK to influence global climate goals, but given the number of competing voices and the power of some of the players, it is unlikely a lone actor would wield much, if any, influence.

Step aside from mitigation and you run into yet more problems. EU funding to tackle natural disasters caused by climate change? Not if you’re outside the union. Funding for climate research? Not as much according to Julia Sligo of the Met Office, who said Brexit would diminish the quality of their climate models and their climate advice.

Taking the above together, it’s difficult not to conclude that leaving reduces the likelihood of the UK making its rightful contribution to the cuts needed to avoid dangerous warming. It also lessens our ability to study and adapt to climate change – and if, as seems unlikely at the moment, the UK wants to push others to cut deeper, leaving the EU diminishes our ability to do so.

Still, forget all that if you like and look on the bright side. Leave or stay, there’s always the Climate Change Act to fall back on. That’s not going anywhere. (Touch wood.)

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