How will Brexit affect climate change policy?

It is still too early to know all the ways in which the UK’s departure from the European Union will affect the climate change policy of the 28 current Member States, but some things now seem likely if not inevitable.

‘Brexit’ will not be completed for at least two years, particularly as the UK has not yet activated Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. So the impacts on climate policy are unlikely to be immediate.

However, it is probable that the UK will not, once it has left the European Union, formally participate in the negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as part of the bloc of Member States.

The UK is already an individual signatory to the Paris Agreement, and contributed to the preparation of the European Union’s collective ‘intended nationally determined contribution’ (INDC) ahead of the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP21) to the UNFCCC, including a joint target for the 28 Member States to reduce their total annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2030 to 40 per cent lower than they were in 1990.

Outside the European Union, the UK will be expected to submit its own ‘nationally determined contribution’, including its own target for emissions in 2030.

On 30 June 2016, the UK Government laid before Parliament a proposed Fifth Carbon Budget of 1,725 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide-equivalent for the five-year period between 2028 and 2032, which would mean annual emissions of greenhouse gases will be, on average, 57 per cent lower than they were in 1990.

The Budget is based on the advice of the expert, independent Committee on Climate Change, which carried out an analysis of the most cost-effective path for the UK to achieve the goal, set out in the Climate Change Act, of reducing its emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050 compared with 1990.

The 2050 target is based on an assessment of the contribution of the UK to an international goal of limiting the rise in global mean surface temperature to 2 Celsius degrees above its pre-industrial level and of keeping the probability of a rise of 4 Celsius degrees by 2100 at an extremely low level.

The Paris Agreement sets a more ambitious goal of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”.

This implies that the targets set by the UK’s carbon budgets and the Climate Change Act will need to be strengthened.

Analysis by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy indicates that the UK will not suffer any significant loss in competitiveness as a result of pursuing the Fifth Carbon Budget, and should benefit in the decades to come.

The 2016 progress report to Parliament by the Committee on Climate Change warned that current policies will not be sufficient to realise either the Fourth Carbon Budget or the Fifth Carbon Budget.

The Fifth Carbon Budget, when passed by Parliament, should provide the basis for the UK’s nationally determined contribution to the Paris Agreement.

It is not yet clear whether the UK will ratify the Paris Agreement as a Member State of the European Union or separately.

However, the departure of the UK will make it more difficult for the European Union to achieve the target contained in its INDC, for two main reasons.

First, the UK has been cutting its annual emissions of greenhouse gases at a faster rate than the average for the European Union.

The latest figures published by the European Environment Agency show that emissions from the 28 Member States were 24.4 per cent lower in 2014 than they were in 1990.

But without the UK, the emissions of the 27 Member States were only 22.8 per cent lower in 2014 than in 1990.

The UK reduced its annual emissions by about 38 per cent by 2015 compared with 1990, during a period when its gross domestic product has increased by more than 60 per cent.

Second, the UK is likely to have a significantly stronger-than-average national target as part of the European Union’s effort-sharing decision about how to achieve the collective commitment of reducing annual emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 compared with 1990. The draft decision is due to be published in July 2016.

This means that in order to achieve the 2030 target, the 27 Member States will need to cut their emissions by more than they would if the UK remained part of the European Union.

But it is also worth noting that if Brexit results in a reduction in economic growth in the European Union over the next few years, it should also exert a downward pressure on the overall annual emissions of the 27 Member States.

Equally, it is likely that the UK’s emissions will also decline at a faster rate if Brexit has the negative impacts on growth that have been forecast by economists.

Other key issues relating to Brexit, such as whether the UK will continue to participate in the European Union Emissions Trading System, remain unclear at present, but the Grantham Research Institute and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy will continue to monitor and comment on developments.

 

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment and the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.