The consequences of Brexit for climate change

by Adrian Macey / 11 July, 2016
Brexit is likely to make tackling climate change more difficult.
The greatest risk is likely to be the EU’s loss of a strong UK voice on climate change. Photo/Getty Images
The greatest risk is likely to be the EU’s loss of a strong UK voice on climate change. Photo/Getty Images


Brexit has created uncertainty and anxiety about climate change, especially the implications for last year’s Paris Agreement, but it does not need to be a disaster.

There is no reason to suppose the UK will resile from its target of 80% net reductions on 1990 levels by 2050, which has strong institutional backing and broad support. Under current legislation, the UK targets are converted into legally binding five-yearly carbon budgets.

Just a few days after the Brexit vote, the UK Government accepted the recommendation of the Committee on Climate Change for the fifth carbon budget, from 2027 to 2032. This will require a 57% reduction on 1990 by 2030. It’s worth noting that this is considerably more ambitious than the UK’s commitment under the Paris Agreement.

But it does get more complicated when it comes to the EU. Under the Paris Agreement, all EU members have individually tabled the EU’s intended nationally determined contribution (INDC), centred on a 40% emissions reduction from 1990 levels by 2030, to be met collectively. EU members are ratifying individually; the EU as a whole will ratify through its Environment Council, with consent by the European Parliament. How the target will be allocated internally – the burden-sharing arrangements – is yet to be decided.

There were hopes to have the EU ratifications completed this year. Theoretically, ratifications could go ahead and the INDCs be adjusted later once Brexit happened. But the timetable must now be in doubt.

Again in theory, the UK could continue to be at least fully linked to the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and its carbon market. The ETS has played a role in achieving the UK’s emissions reductions in areas such as power generation.

However, as the Committee on Climate Change has pointed out, the UK might have to look to new measures to take the place of EU programmes. Environmental and economic logic would argue in favour of continued integration with Europe’s ETS. But political logic – as New Zealand saw with our failure to maintain access to Kyoto market mechanisms – is less rational. In any case, there is lots of work ahead for lawyers and negotiators.

The greatest risk posed by Brexit is not technicalities around ratification of the Paris Agreement, but rather the loss of a strong voice on climate change within the EU. The UK’s voice has been important not only for internal EU policy but also for the EU’s role in international negotiations.

Brexit risks shifting the balance of EU climate policies away from ambitious targets. The key factor is likely to be how strong the shift is in global thinking and commitment to action on climate change heralded by the Paris Agreement.

Dr Adrian Macey is adjunct professor at the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute and senior associate at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University.

Read more: Why has Scotland risen above the anti-immigrant mood that fuelled Brexit?

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