Brexit: what impact on the climate?

Britain is to vote in a referendum on its membership of the EU by 2017. Where could that leave its climate policy? We asked five experts

The European Union fraying (credit: Wikimedia commons)

The European Union: fraying? (credit: Wikimedia commons)

By Alex Pashley

The United Kingdom will debate its four-decade membership of the European Union by the end of 2017.

In and Out campaigns have just launched, fuelling immense speculation on the direction of the country’s future policies.

Eurosceptics trumpet the benefits of escaping Brussels’ meddling.

Meanwhile, EU advocates fear Britain’s exit (Brexit) would cast it adrift between the continent and a less-interested United States.

How does that feed into acting on climate change?

Nick Mabey, chief executive at E3G, a London think tank

NickMabey_165_220_60gray A vote for “Brexit” would significantly damage the UK’s ability to manage climate risks to UK citizens, business and global interests.  The UK has been a leading advocate for ambitious EU climate policy since 1997. Through its world-class diplomatic networks the UK has greatly multiplied the impact of European climate policy internationally.

Without the UK, the balance of forces inside the EU would shift towards lower climate ambition; driven by Poland’s increased importance. A low ambition, more inwardly focused EU will have much less influence in pushing for the increases in emission cuts needed from the US, China and India to keep below 2C.

Brexit would also result in the UK (and Ireland) being excluded from the embryonic North Sea electricity free trade area thus increasing the cost of moving to a low carbon power system.

Tim Worstall, senior fellow at Adam Smith Institute, a London think tank

timworstall-cut_ResizedBrexit could immeasurably improve British climate change policy, for it would enable us to have a sensible one.

Freed from the penchant of the continental cousins for regulation, targets, feed in tariffs and the rest, we could do what the Stern Review, William Nordhaus, Richard Tol and every other economist who has studied the problem has been urging us to do.

Stick on a carbon tax of the appropriate size, declare the problem solved and go off and do something more interesting.

Femke de Jong, EU climate policy officer at Carbon Market Watch, a Brussels advocacy group

Fem-headshot-150x150Brexit would leave Britain at the sidelines rather than as a frontrunner in the EU’s low-carbon transition.

Britain can still choose to remain part of the EU’s Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) if it leaves the EU as the ETS already covers the emissions from installations in three non-EU countries. As the UK Climate Change Act partly relies on the EU’s carbon market to meet its carbon budgets, this makes sense. However, Britain would lose its seat at the negotiation table and be forced to watch from the sidelines while the other EU Member States and the European Parliament agree on the direction of the EU’s climate policies for it.

With the UK the Council president in 2017 just as the bloc’s 2020 climate policies are set to be finalised, Brexit before then would be a lost opportunity.

Richard Tol, economics professor at University of Sussex and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

289812Brexit would have little impact on the climate, because it would have little impact on the emissions of the major emitters of greenhouse gases. Europeans blow hot and cold over global warming, but its future is really determined in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

Brexit could have a substantial impact on energy policy in the United Kingdom, although much depends on the specifics of that exit. If the UK would develop a similar sort of relationship with the EU as Norway and Switzerland have, then a Brexit would barely be noticeable beyond the headlines and the pictures of beaming Farage.

A more radical break with Europe is less likely, but would allow the UK to steer a more independent course.

Trevor Hutchings, director of advocacy at WWF-UK, the global conservation NGO

7mnwTIR3Whatever the UK’s future relationship with Europe, it must not undermine collective action necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The key environmental challenges of our day – climate change, air pollution, biodiversity loss, habitats destruction –  do not respect national boundaries and therefore need to be addressed through joined-up regional, and in many cases, global action. Failure to tackle climate change risks our economic and social wellbeing.

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