By Ed King
Climate change is unlikely to feature highly in David Cameron’s thoughts as he seeks to renegotiate the UK’s place in the European Union.
Britain’s Prime Minister appears to see the EU solely through a prism of trade and economics, and is keen to see these aspects define the country’s relationship with Brussels.
An isolated UK may satisfy members of the Conservative Party who see the EU’s regulations as an excessive burden the country can do without.
But many fear this would ignore at a stroke the huge contribution the EU has made in nurturing the global low carbon economy, not only within the 27 Member States, but around the world.
John Ashton, who until recently led the UK’s climate change diplomacy unit, told RTCC a sidelined UK could damage efforts to build an international carbon emissions deal.
“Europe has been a driving force in building the global response to climate change and Britain has been at the heart of that,” he said. “We have a national interest in a successful response to climate change.
“A Europe in which Britain is semi-detached or worse in the process of leaving is not going to be a Europe doing the climate diplomacy that we need to secure our national interest.”
Former UK Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott echoes these concerns, arguing the EU plays a vital role driving global ambition and holding Washington to account.
“Europe has led the way with this, and I think if Europe was to connect with China and India it could be a powerful force to counteract the negative role taken by America,” he told RTCC.
For all Britain’s island tendencies, it has become one of the central players in Europe on climate change.
Pete Betts, a UK diplomat, jointly leads the EU negotiations while another Briton, Paul Watkinson, now heads up France’s climate team.
At the 2011 UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP) in Durban, EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard was rarely seen without then UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Chris Huhne at her side.
His replacement Ed Davey played an equally important role in Doha.
The UK boasts some of the world’s leading climate experts. For example, the government’s chief environmental scientist Professor Sir Bob Watson is a former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while the Met Office’s Hadley Centre is considered to be amongst the best climate change research institutions anywhere.
In the 2008 Climate Change Act the UK enshrined in law one of the world’s most ambitious plans to curb greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The law is a major reason why London is now pushing the rest of Europe to adopt a tougher 30% carbon reduction target for 2020.
This in itself would be impressive. But, more importantly, it also ensures that together with France and Germany the UK can drive EU climate ambition with authority.
Power of one
Despite the Eurozone crisis and increasingly bleak economic projections, the EU still has significant leverage around the world.
With a GDP of $17.5 trillion compared to the UK’s $2.4 trillion, the world’s largest single market is home to some of the toughest energy efficiency laws.
As China’s largest export market it defines many of the technology standards companies from around the world operate under.
The EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU-ETS) may be imperfect but it is nevertheless used as the template for carbon markets in Australia, California and China, while efforts to develop an effective smart grid are being closely followed in India.
This is the frontline in the battle against climate change, a drive for a low carbon economy that is sorely stretching the patience of vested interests in the fossil fuel lobby.
If any deal is agreed at the 2015 COP to be held in Paris, it is likely the EU will need to demonstrate the same unity it showed in 2011, when European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard took on India, China and to a lesser extent the USA in forcing through an agreement.
Chris Huhne told RTCC the EU influence was “crucial” at that summit, “playing a progressive and stimulating role in pushing the global talks on”.
Few know that many in the UN were resigned to the talks collapsing in Durban, which could have been terminal for a process still recovering from the trauma of Copenhagen.
New world order
While the US may still be the world’s only military superpower, in terms of trade the terrain is already multipolar, with Brazil, India, China and Russia all flexing their muscles. The opportunities for individual countries are evident, but so are the dangers.
European Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potočnik recently spoke of his fears that a global resource race between the EU and large emerging economies could have savage implications for the planet.
“The fact that we will be in such greater competition means that we have to find ways to better manage our resource use. Europe’s role in this ‘reshaped global order’ is clear, as is the path out of the economic crisis,” he said.
“Natural resources and the challenges they bring know no frontiers, and in this context neither should alliances and partnerships between existing and emerging powers. Europe has an important role to play, and we cannot afford to fail.”
In 1992, EU leaders agreed at Maastricht that ‘Sustainable growth respecting the environment’ would become a mantra of the bloc. Two decades later and a path is beginning to emerge.
The experts agree that to achieve a deal in 2015 the EU will need to demonstrate that low carbon economic growth is possible – but this needs continued buy-in from all 27 Member States.
For the sake of a world threatened by climate change, David Cameron needs to acknowledge that this is one commitment the UK cannot opt out of.
RTCC VIDEO: Lord Prescott – Europe can counter negative US climate position