Brexit will leave US, China running global climate policy

At present the EU is collectively at a similar level to the other two global super powers, the US and China. A UK exit would alter the balance of power for good.

Arguably the most consequential relationship President Obama built was with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (Pic: White House/Flickr)


The UK decision on Brexit will have important implications for the future of both UK and EU climate diplomacy.

A new Chatham House paper assesses the costs and benefits associated with different models of Brexit and finds that in all cases a decision to leave the EU would weaken the UK’s international influence on climate and energy policy; and potentially shift the centre of gravity within the remaining European Member States.

This could empower those less inclined to support ambitious action on climate change and undermine European implementation of the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

The Paris Agreement was a watershed moment in international climate cooperation. The EU was fundamental to this success, and the UK was one of the most progressive voices pushing for action.

However, without continued efforts to increase ambition the central goal of holding global average temperature increases to well below 2C could quickly slip beyond reach.

In climate negotiations a country’s leverage is significantly determined by its share of global emissions and access to technology and finance.

At present the EU is collectively at a similar level to the other two global super powers, the US and China. This gives the UK, as part of the EU, access to the ‘top table’ in negotiations as meaningful progress can only be achieved with agreement across all three main powers.

If the UK were to vote for Brexit this would significantly undermine its international influence. The UK would move alongside other ‘second tier’ climate powers such as Australia, Canada and South Korea.

Brexit would also weaken the EU position for remaining Member States. Firstly the reduced size of the EU would mean the US and China would wield even more influence than they do now.

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By negotiating bilaterally and then presenting a united front to the rest of the world, this could enable the US and China to form a more hegemonic ‘G2’ and dominate future decisions.

Secondly without the UK pushing for higher ambition the centre of gravity among remaining Member States could shift towards a more conservative approach, as has been advocated by countries such as Poland.

The next five years provides a critical window to build on the success of Paris and establish a credible below 2C pathway. In particular a facilitative dialogue in 2018 gives countries an opportunity to review, and potentially increase, their current pledges (Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs in the language of the UN).

By reducing both its own and Europe’s power a decision to Brexit would potentially make it more likely that countries roll forward at the current levels of ambition rather than increasing them.

Leaving would mean that the UK would no longer be a part of the collective EU NDC and would need to submit its own contribution.

(Source: Chatham House)

(Source: Chatham House)

Although the current UK Climate Change Act, which commits the UK to achieving an 80% emissions reduction in greenhouse gases from 1990 levels by 2050, would not automatically change with Brexit, it could open the door to a more conservative policy in future.

The presence of EU level climate legislation in the form of the 2030 Climate and Energy Framework provides additional certainty over the direction and level of action.

Outside the EU a simple majority could overturn any domestic legislation and senior Conservative politicians within the Brexit camp, many of whom are well-known for being less ambitious or actively opposed to action on climate change, would likely be central to forming any post referendum government.

In this event the UK could potentially put forward a significantly less ambitious NDC than is currently implied by both EU and its own domestic legislation.

(Source: Chatham House)

(Source: Chatham House)

The UK leaving could also complicate burden sharing discussions within the remaining EU Member States. This is already a highly sensitive subject and the withdrawal of the UK could again empower less progressive countries within the remaining negotiations.

The net result could be to focus efforts in a defensive discussion to preserve current ambition levels in Europe, rather than pushing for continued global leadership towards 2C.

It is therefore crucial that those in favour of strong global climate action consider the implications of Brexit for the UK and Europe’s role in the world.

A decision to leave brings clear risks in terms of diminished global influence and outlook. A decision to remain would empower both the UK and EU to continue to push forward for higher ambition.

Shane Tomlinson is a senior associate at London-based think tank E3G

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