Opinion: Brexit is causing deep uncertainty across a range of policy spheres so what will it mean for Europe’s efforts to combat climate change?

The scale of the decarbonisation challenge facing the world is nothing short of daunting. According to the UN Environment Emissions Gap Report 2017, climate change policy pledges made by governments around the world cumulatively amount to only approximately one-third of what is required to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius, a key danger threshold set by climate scientists.

In order to close this gap, much deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions are needed between now and 2030 as well as beyond. Governments and societies around the world are increasingly waking up to the challenges posed by climate change, though many have not yet understood the scale of the changes required.

Climate change is a quintessentially global problem. No country—not even great powers such as China—can solve it on their own. The landmark Paris climate agreement, forged by nearly 200 governments at the COP21 climate summit in 2015, provides a framework for global cooperation. Donald Trump’s announcement in June 2017 that he intends to pull the US out of Paris certainly dealt a blow to global efforts, but the response by the rest of the world—including by the EU, China and Canada as well as by many states and cities within the US—has been encouraging.

Brexit will impact on the EU’s commitment to decarbonise transport, buildings and agriculture sectors

The EU has long been a leading player in the global response to climate change. The EU persevered with the 1997 Kyoto Protocol following the withdrawal of the US, and played a central role in shaping the Paris climate agreement. At home, the EU has developed a progressively wider and deeper set of policies to deliver on its international commitments.

However, Brexit poses challenges for the European response to climate change in at least four areas. First of all, the UK’s withdrawal alters the balance between progressive and laggard EU member states when it comes to climate policy. The UK has been among the vanguard pushing a decarbonisation agenda within the EU over the past couple of decades. Its departure will complicate the EU’s efforts to decarbonise the European economy.

Secondly, one of the Union’s flagship policy instruments, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS), may be undermined. The scheme requires power generation companies and heavy industry to possess permits to emit carbon dioxide. These permits are tradeable on an EU-wide basis. Companies for whom emissions reductions are relatively expensive can purchase these permits from companies for whom emissions reductions are relatively cheaper, with the result that emissions reductions occur in a cost-effective manner.

"The biggest risk to EU climate ambition is that it slips down the agenda as the EU and UK struggle to manage the Brexit process"

It is not yet clear what will happen the EU ETS post-Brexit. One option is that the UK could remain in the scheme, similar to Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway who participate despite not being EU member states. Another option is that the UK could establish its own domestic emissions trading scheme that could then be linked to the EU ETS. The EU ETS has faced significant challenges, but some observers are optimistic that these can be overcome through reforms due to come on stream in 2021. Brexit significantly complicates that picture.

Thirdly, Brexit will impact on the EU’s commitment to decarbonise those economic sectors not covered by the EU ETS—principally transport, buildings and agriculture. Member states have agreed to reduce emissions from the non-ETS sector by 30% relative to 2005 levels by 2030. Under a deal reached in December 2017, each member state has been allocated an individual share of this overall target. The UK’s target of 37% is higher than the EU average, meaning that Brexit will leave a hole in the collective effort of the 27 remaining member states.

Its record as a climate laggard is not helping Ireland's reputation in Europe 

Finally, Brexit potentially undermines the EU’s international climate diplomacy. The UK has been at the forefront of European efforts to shape global climate cooperation over recent decades. The UK Foreign Office invested heavily in building up an extensive network of climate diplomats around the world. In a post-Brexit landscape, the EU will lose one of its most active international climate champions. On top of this, the UK’s continued commitment to international climate diplomacy is in question. In fact, a recent UK foreign policy position paper failed to mention the Paris climate agreement among a list of international treaties the UK is "committed" to.

Perhaps the biggest risk to EU climate ambition is that it slips down the policy agenda in the coming years as the EU and UK struggle to manage the Brexit process, particularly if we face a disorderly Brexit. Policies to combat climate change have in the past been subject to the vagaries of economic and political cycles. For example, climate change dropped off the agenda during the depths of the financial crisis. With increasing talk of a hard Brexit, this is a growing risk.

What does Brexit mean for Ireland’s approach to climate change? With the third-highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, Ireland is clearly a climate laggard. Ireland will miss its EU emissions target for 2020 by a wide margin.

Its record as a climate laggard is not helping Ireland’s reputation in Europe. This matters because, in a post-Brexit landscape, the Irish government is looking for support from other member states to deal with negative fallout from Brexit. All the while, the Irish government is having to defend its corporate tax regime in an increasingly hostile environment. In this context, stepping up to the plate on climate change may help Ireland to win friends in Europe.

More than that, combating climate change presents a huge opportunity for Irish businesses to join to low carbon economy of the future. Moreover, the outcomes of the Citizens’ Assembly deliberations on climate change showed a clear desire for Ireland to play a more proactive role in responding to climate change.

Action to slow climate change could not be more urgent: the past three years have been the warmest since records began in 1880. Europe cannot afford to let Brexit derail its decarbonisation efforts.

The DCU Brexit Institute's event on Brexit, Climate and Energy Policy, in partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Political Studies Association of Ireland, takes place in Dublin tomorrow with speakers including former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, EPA director general Laura Burke and Deputy Chair of UK Committee on Climate Change Baroness Brown of Cambridge DBE


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ