Thursday the 23rd of June 2016 will be remembered as a historical day. In a referendum, the Brits voted to leave the European Union –or at least 52% did. For the first time since the six founding members kick-started the European project for economic collaboration and peace building in 1958, a member state leaves the family.
The result sent shock waves through the world. A lot has been said and written and one thing is very clear: the United in United Kingdom is at an all-time low. The impacts of the Brexit on the climate have mainly stayed under the radar. I’ll do my best to present you some food for thought.
Global problems need a global solution
Sometimes I really get hopeless, people simply seem to miss the point that the biggest challenges we face today are borderless. They need a global plan of attack. Or to use my own countries’ motto: “Unity makes force”. Just take a paper and try to write down the big issues that have been dominating the headlines the last months. You will soon realise that trying to solve them each on our own might not be impossible, though very cumbersome.
Everywhere, in every age, in every area however wide, our every grouping of peoples however diverse, unity has made for strength and prosperity for all within its circle. Why should Europe fear unity? –Winston Churchill
Take climate change. It makes sense to distribute the efforts such that the ones that can easily reduce their carbon footprint do so, with (financial) support from countries that have little opportunities. Doing more with less, you see. If we truly want to make the transition towards a sustainable economy, it will cost tonnes of money so we better spend it efficiently.
A shift in balance
And let that be one of the big mistakes of Europe’s climate policy so far. Driven by countries as France, Germany and France that advocate a strong governmental role in setting out the lines of our energy future, market disturbing support mechanisms for renewables cost the tax payer more than it should. Last year, German citizens paid more than twenty billion euros to recover the costs of the feed-in tariff scheme for renewables. Many energy specialists argue that the same goals could have been reached with less subsidies if a more market centred approach would have been followed.
The UK formed an important counterbalance to the tendency for strong governmental support of renewables. Which doesn’t mean it has not been ambitious in its climate goals. It has been praised for taking up a leading role in reaching the Paris climate Agreement, pushing for 50% reduction by 2030 rather than the 40% that we have right now.
There is a risk that this could kick EU ratification of the Paris agreement into the long grass
Speaking about that. Since the EU makes its commitments in the U.N. climate conferences as one bloc, the exit of Great Britain will mean a recalibration of the EU goals and commitments, as U.N.’s climate chief Christiana Figueres has said. Whatever that might mean is rather unclear.
What is very clear though is that the whole process of ratification of the Paris Agreement will be slowed down considerably. “There is a risk that this could kick EU ratification of the Paris agreement into the long grass,” Jonathan Grant, director of sustainability at consultancy firm PwC, told the Guardian. Knowing that most euro-skeptics, like Boris Johnson, also happen to be climate sceptics, it is not unlikely that the UK will tune down its ambitious in a post-Brexit scenario.
Add Trump to the mix and it can’t get worse
I think you already realised all of that is very bad news for our climate. The Paris Agreement needs a ratification in 55 countries that covers at least 55% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. The European bloc could bring us quite a bit closer in reaching that goal.
Trump is already up to a lot of bad stuff, let’s avoid giving him this additional opportunity to showcase his short-sightedness.
But for an even more pressing reason to hasten the ratification of the deal, we have to look at the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Donald Trump –who congratulated the British people on their decision “to take back control over their country”– has vowed to withdraw from the Paris agreement if he gets elected as US president next year. Trump is already up to a lot of bad stuff, let’s avoid giving him this additional opportunity to showcase his short-sightedness. The sooner the Paris deal is set in stone, the better. It will make it significantly more difficult for Trump to withdraw, since it would put the U.S. in a very bad diplomatic position with the rest of the world.
Impact on the short term
One very bitter short term benefit of the Brexit for the climate is a possible slow down of the UK economy in the months and years to come. Lower industrial activity means lower greenhouse gas emissions. But in the longer term, this win is very likely to be outnumbered by the halt in investments in renewable energy. There is one thing that investors hate more than anything else: uncertainty. Ever since the world awoke last Friday, chaos seems to dominate the U.K. politics. Investors are very likely to put a stop on new investment until trade deals between the UK and Europe have been cleared up.
Last Friday the prices of carbon permits in the European emission trading system dropped by 17% to a ridiculously low € 4.70. This is probably because the industry itself foresees a fallback in activity, lowering the demand for permits in the months and years to come. But a high carbon price is necessary to give renewable technologies a competitive advantage over polluting fuels like coal and gas. Although experts do not expect the UK to leave the European permit trading system, companies will be in limbo on what might happen next.
Yet, a Brexit does not necessarily need to be a bummer for the climate in the long-run. If they keep and level up their ambitions, there is no reason for too much panic. It might also be that their strongly market-based approach turns out to be more effective than the European approach which tends to over-subsidisation of renewable technologies. But with the climate sceptics that might take the power in the months to come, I feel not very confident this will happen. Only the future will tell.
Final thoughts from a young European
If I had to choose one thing that disturbs me the most about the whole Brexit debacle, it is the fact that the young Brits who will bear the largest share of its impacts. European leaders have mainly reacted fiercely on the outcome of the referendum, by stating the U.K. shouldn’t expect a nice set of deals and that they now have to bear the consequences of what they voted for.
Well, I feel very very sad for the millennials of the United Kingdom. One of the nastiest political campaigns has preceded the referendum. Its outcome leaves the country divided, confused and worried. With 73% of the 18 to 24 year-olds voting to remain, and 62% of the 35 to 44-year olds, the tyranny of the majority of older generations seems to decide on a future they will not live through too long anyway.
Even the former EU president Herman Van Rompuy, who I respect a lot, made a statement that showcases bitter resentment and revenge: “now they have to realise very well that from now on, we are we and them are them”. It makes me hope for a new generation of politicians that will stand up and fix this mess –I cannot longer bear to see it.