The Harder the Brexit – the hotter it gets? 

*Brexit to destabilise UK, EU & International efforts to respond to climate change 

Brexit could have profoundly destabilising impact on global momentum to address climate change, according to a report just published by the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), Dublin. The analysis explores the political impacts for climate change, within the UK, at the EU level and globally, under four scenarios:

  1. Remain:reversal of the decision to leave
  2. Soft Brexit:the UK remains in the EU single market and customs union
  3. Hard Brexit:the UK leaves single market and the customs union
  4. Ultra-Hard Brexit:like Hard Brexit but followed by domestic roll back of environmental legislation

Apart from Remain, all scenarios come with negative consequences for climate protection. According to report author, Joseph Curtin, “One thing is clear: further to the damaging withdrawal of the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, the last thing global efforts to tackle climate change need is Brexit; and the harder the Brexit, the worse the climate impact.”

The negative consequences, according to the report, ripple out from the loss of UK influence at the EU negotiating table. The UK has historically been a leader in EU climate policy, aligning itself to the clean and green grouping of Member States, including Germany and the Nordic countries. It has taken on the most challenging commitments to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gasses and has also been a leading proponent of reforms to the EU’s flagship climate policy, its carbon trading scheme. If the UK leaves, even in a Soft Brexit scenario, the balance of power tilts towards the less ambitious grouping of Member States, led by Poland. EU leadership and ambition suffer.

The report finds that under all three Brexit scenarios, there may be a requirement for the EU to resubmit a less ambitious pledge to the UN’s Paris Climate Agreement. This is because the UK contributes disproportionately to the overall EU pledge (a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030), and other Member States are unlikely to take up the slack post-Brexit. In an Ultra-Hard scenario, where the UK seeks to gain competitive advantage through deregulation following a Hard Brexit, the situation is worse. In this scenario, the report argues, the UK would be unlikely to submit an ambitious national pledge to the Paris Agreement, if indeed it submits a pledge at all. The very survival of the Paris Climate Agreement could be threatened.

Somewhat counterintuitively, in most scenarios, the implications for the UK’s national climate policy are limited. “This is because the UK’s climate ambition is underpinned by domestic legislation such as the Climate Change Act (2008)” Curtin said, “and is not a function of EU Membership per se.”

The exception, the report contends, is in Ultra-Hard Brexit, where the UK rolls back its domestic climate policy following a Hard Brexit. In this scenario, there are profoundly destabilising impacts on decarbonisation momentum at all levels: within the UK, and at EU and UN fora.

Speaking at the launch of the report, Barry Andrews, Director General of the IIEA, said, “This IIEA analysis of the impact of Brexit on climate change shows different results to other areas of policy we are exploring. In most areas, the UK will be disproportionally negatively affected by its decision to leave the EU, be it in trade, foreign policy or security. However, when it comes to climate change, under all Brexit scenarios the most profoundly negative consequence are not felt by the UK, but by the EU and internationally.”