Brexit Casts a Shadow Over Paris Climate Change Agreement

Published August 1, 2016

Britain’s historic June 23 vote to leave the 28-member European Union, popularly called “Brexit,” sent shockwaves around the world, roiling markets and currencies and causing turmoil within the United Kingdom’s political parties.

One of the casualties of the referendum could be the December 2015 Paris climate change agreement, in which countries and regional groups agreed to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the decades to come. Both the United Kingdom and the European Union signed the agreement, but now that the United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union, under conditions that have yet to be negotiated, the future of both commitments to the U.N.-sponsored climate agreement are in doubt.

In order for the Paris agreement to go into force, it must be ratified by at least 55 parties that together account for at least 55 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. As a group, the European Union is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, accounting for approximately 10 percent of global emissions.

Confusion Reigns

The uncertainty caused by Brexit was summed up by Andy Jordan, a professor at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in England, who reportedly told the Washington Post the day after the Brexit vote U.K. climate policies could shift. 

“We don’t know how long the exit process will take, and secondly, whether that would end up with the U.K. still in a single market, like Norway, and therefore still within a burden-sharing agreement, or completely outside the EU as a separate state, and therefore, would submit its own [climate pledge],” Jordan said to the Post.  “And, in fact, it could take years until that’s clear.”

The United Kingdom, which has 65 million inhabitants, was the first country in the world to enact a climate change law—the 2008 Climate Change Act, which committed the country to reduce its GHG emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

At Paris in 2015, the European Union, with the United Kingdom still a member, pledged to slash its GHG emissions by at least 40 percent by 2040.  Under the agreement, the European Union’s commitment is “to be fulfilled jointly.” Now than the United Kingdom, the European Union’s second-largest economy, is set to strike out on its own, it is unclear whether the remaining 27 members will be able to reach the 40-percent-reduction goal.

At a June 22 press conference announcing the formation of the Global Covenant of Mayors,  Christiana Figueres, executive director of the U.N. Commission on Climate Change, raised concerns about what a vote to leave the European Union would mean for the Paris agreement, saying, “From the point of view of the Paris agreement, the UK is part of the EU and has put in its effort as part of the EU so anything that would change that would require a recalibration.”

Adding to the confusion is the political disarray in the United Kingdom. Prime Minister David Cameron resigned and his replacement Theresa May could be less enthusiastic about adopting severe carbon-dioxide restrictions in the midst of the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union. Also, because many of the members of the British Parliament who favored the Brexit movement are climate skeptics, they are likely to have greater influence over the exit negotiations, including the United Kingdom’s future climate commitments.

More Trouble for E.U. Climate Goals

Paul Driessen, senior policy advisor with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, says additional problems are arising for the European Union’s climate commitments.

“Germany’s climate protection and decarbonization plan has driven up electricity prices and is hurting businesses, jobs, and poor families,” said Driessen. “In response, Germany is building new coal-fired power plants and cutting back on its carbon-dioxide reduction targets. Poland is doing the same.

“At the same time, Britain is looking closely at tapping its vast shale reserves, while it and Denmark are cutting plans for new wind farms,” Driessen said.

“The United Kingdom has experienced a great deal of buyer’s remorse since making its carbon-dioxide-reduction pledge in 2008,” said James Taylor, president of the Spark of Freedom Foundation.

“A substantial increase in wind turbines since 2008 pushed electricity prices higher than promised, while reliability declined,” said Taylor. “This has led U.K. government officials to rethink their commitment to wind power.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.