No-deal Brexit would be a disaster for the climate

Comment: Boris Johnson’s leadership increases the likelihood of a hard exit from the EU, shattering the bloc’s solidarity and empowering a radical deregulation agenda

Anti-Brexit protests in Manchester (Photo: Ilovetheeu)


The new UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, seems intent on leaving the EU with or without a deal on 31 October. The repercussions of a no-deal Brexit for the UK’s domestic climate policy – and its global climate leadership – could be disastrous.

For three decades, the UK has played a central role within the EU, consistently aligning itself with the green grouping of member states. It contributed more than its fair share of the EU’s climate efforts, is penciled in for a significantly above-average contribution to the EU’s Paris Agreement pledge, and it has decarbonized faster than any other member state.

In a no-deal Brexit, the obvious first order impact is that the UK’s influence over the EU’s climate policy would end, and its successes at cutting emissions would no longer count to the bloc’s targets.

The loss of the UK’s influence at the table will be a major blow to European climate solidarity. It will undercut the EU’s future climate ambition by tilting the balance of power towards less ambitious member states – the likes of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. This will damage the ability of the EU to project global leadership.

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Even if the EU may be weakened, the UK government has been adamant that its climate diplomacy will fill the gap. It recently committed to reach “net zero” emissions by 2050, and to hosting Cop26 UN climate talks at the end of 2020.

However, in an ultra-hard Brexit, the one now on the table, the lofty ambition of UK leadership – like so much else associated with post-Brexit Britain – may be revealed as wishful thinking.

We must not forget the fantasy at the heart of Brexit – that the EU is rife with “Brussels bureaucrats” hell bent on regulating everything from the transport of smoked kippers to the bendiness of bananas. Post-Brexit Britain, we have been reassured, is poised to “take back control” by casting off these pesky regulations.

In a report published two years ago, the Institute of International and European Affairs speculated that in a no-deal Brexit scenario, the UK could seek to gain competitive advantage through the rollback of social protections, health, safety, and environmental regulations. These include some 650 pieces of EU legislation protecting the environment in the areas such as climate, water, air quality, biodiversity and waste.

At the time, this seemed somewhat unlikely, given that a “bonfire of the regulations” was supported only by a fanatical minority. But the result of the recent leadership election, and subsequent cabinet reshuffle, are cause for concern.

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It already appears that the UK intends to lower its carbon price following a no-deal Brexit. More worryingly still, Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, recently met with two US-based think tanks, the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. These two libertarian think tanks are fervently opposed to the Paris Agreement and any form of climate action, and have proposed a UK-US trade deal based around radical deregulation.

It is true that the UK’s climate ambition is copper fastened by its Climate Change Act. However, cutting climate regulations, such as environmental standards for buildings, cars, and appliances, is a clarion call for many of the hard Brexiters now sitting around the cabinet table. It might prove too tempting to resist in a no-deal scenario, especially if the economy contracts, leaving the Tory right scrambling around for any new sources of competitive advantage. What once was unconscionable could – just like a no-deal Brexit – quickly become reality.

At a more profound level, a no-deal Brexit would constitute a blow to structured cooperation between nation states, which is essential for climate action.

UK carbon price to plummet under no-deal Brexit

Oil major Shell has some remarkably prescient analysis on this topic. In a report first published a decade ago, it mapped two scenarios.

In the “scramble” scenario, every state looks to protect its own narrowly-conceived self-interests, and willingness to regulate and cooperate for the greater good disappears. Global demand for fossil fuels soars, and atmospheric CO2 reaches “well above” 550 parts per million.

In its alternative scenario, “blueprints”, the key difference is multilateralism. Coalitions promoting global climate action tentatively emerge, and are strengthened as they deliver tangible results – environmental and economic. In this world, the US, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and EU approaches to CO2 management come into close alignment by 2020, rapidly reducing fossil fuel demand.

The crucial importance of multilateralism suggested in Shell’s scenarios is demonstrated in microcosm by the EU’s climate performance. The European Commission, supported by the European Parliament, has championed the bloc-wide emissions trading scheme, promoted legally binding targets for emissions and renewables, and introduced robust energy efficiency standards for everything from toasters to motor vehicles to residential buildings.

As a result, since 1990 the bloc’s emissions have fallen by nearly a quarter. Among all major developed economies, only EU member states – the UK, Germany, Italy and France – have managed to cut emissions. All others – including the US, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Canada – have failed miserably to decarbonize.

For the blink of an eye in 2015, it seemed that a “blueprints” world was within reach, when the Paris Agreement was signed. But on 23 June 2016, the “scramble” logic reasserted itself.

In fact, this scenario now reads like prophecy: the EU success story is threatened by Brexit and the rise of populism; the UN is hamstrung by the announced withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement; while petrostates such as Russia sow discord, because a fragmented international order means more fossil fuel sales.

Against this backdrop, global emissions have surged. To reverse this alarming trend, climate advocates should make averting a no-deal Brexit their top priority.

Dr Joseph Curtin (@jmcurtin) is senior fellow at the Institute of International and European Affairs, Dublin. He is currently based in New York.

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