Alexandra-Maria Bocse (LSE) assesses the degree to which the EU’s participation in the global climate regime will be affected by Brexit. First, the EU will lose a member that has pushed for higher standards of climate protection at home and EU level. This might have a negative impact on the EU’s climate policies. Second, the EU will lose an innovative member when it comes to designing policies and mechanisms to address climate change. Third, the EU will lose an important climate finance player. But it is not all bad news. Outside the EU, the UK should remain committed to tackling climate change and to cooperating with the EU in addressing this common global challenge. 

Climate is one of the areas in which the EU has been able to show global presence and exercise leadership internationally. There are various definitions associated with climate leadership in the specialised literature, but for the purpose of this analysis a climate leader will be considered an entity which does at least one of the following: 1) sets for itself high GHG emissions reduction targets and develops policies to implement them; 2) determines other countries to adopt similar policies (including through its actions at international climate negotiations); 3) develops innovative policies and instruments to address climate change. Despite the fact that the EU’s behaviour in international climate politics is not beyond criticism, over the last decades the European Union has impacted developments in global climate politics in at least three ways: by committing to ambitions GHG emissions reduction targets; by contributing to the development of a global climate regime while at the center of global environmental negotiations and by developing climate policies and instruments that show substantial ambition and that can be replicated by other states. There aren’t many areas in which the EU can make a claim to global action, however, shaping global climate politics is one of those areas, as shown by several studies (Vogler and Stephan 2007; Zito 2005)[1]. If the European Union is often considered a climate leader at the international level, the UK showed leadership in relation to other EU countries. Its departure from the EU will most likely have a negative impact on EU’s climate action.

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A weaker EU in international climate politics

The UK has contributed in several ways to the EU’s ability to act internally and internationally on climate change (no successful international engagement on climate can be achieved without strong climate measures at home). Without the UK, the EU is likely to be a weaker climate actor.

The UK has a reputation for promoting ambitious GHG emissions reduction policies at home. The Climate Change Act 2008 set as the target for 2050 the reduction of 80% of GHG emissions compared with 1990 levels. In the following years, discussions taking place in Brussels led to the EU setting up a similar EU-wide target for 2050. For 2030 the UK’s target is 57%, while the EU’s is 40%. The UK’s withdrawal from the EU weakens the position of climate-ambitious Member States and increases the relative power and influence of States that feel the EU should not take on additional climate commitments. The preparations for the December 2018 climate summit in Katowice, Poland showed the polarisation between EU Member States pushing for higher GHG emissions reduction by 2050 and a more ambitions 2050 climate strategy and countries in Central and Eastern Europe that are more coal-dependent. The former group of states will lose an important member after Brexit. This creates the danger of EU’s climate goals being watered down after Brexit.

The UK has been a supporter of the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), a key European tool for the reduction of GHG emissions. The EU ETS is also ‘a key part of the UK’s action to tackle climate change’ (House of Lords 2018). The EU ETS is a cap-and-trade system that sets a cap on the GHG emissions, generates emissions allowances and allows businesses to trade these allowances. The system is supposed to attach a cost to pollution. Unfortunately, in recent years the EU ETS failed to keep the carbon price high enough to incentivize investment in low-carbon technologies. The UK advanced solutions to improve the system, such as the carbon price floor (CPF). The CPF came into effect in the UK on 1 April 2013. The CPF is made up of the price of CO2 from the EU ETS and the carbon price support rate per tCO2. The carbon price floor requires industries to pay a top up if the market (EU ETS) price of carbon is lower than the CPF. Introducing a CPF grew popular with other countries and policymakers in Europe, with French President Emmanuel Macron stating in March 2018 that France will support such a mechanism to be implemented EU-wide. The UK’s departure from the EU ETS is likely to trigger additional amendments to the system and an improperly timed leave could create further disruption (particularly a leave not aligned with the end of the third trading phase, 2020, could spell trouble)[2]. Brexit could jeopardize the functioning of the EU ETS and reduce the EU ability to reach its GHGs reduction targets. The EU ETS is also an instrument the EU exported in recent years to countries seeking advice from the EU on emissions trading, for instance China, and is important to the EU international influence in climate politics.

The UK has also been an important player when it comes to climate finance, from at least two perspectives. First, the UK is a leading European financial centre (London, for instance, is the third largest bond market in the world and covers 9% of total global issuance). Institutions in the UK became a leading issuer of green bonds and in recent years, London emerged as an international ‘hub for green finance, green bond issuance and investment’. Brexit is likely to impact the ability of the UK to provide the EU with financial services, including green finance.  Second, the UK channels currently £1.5bn of ODA through the EU annually, part of which is used to finance climate projects outside the EU borders, the EU being the largest contributor of climate finance to developing countries. The EU might face an important drop in its development and climate finance after Brexit.

Apart, but staying close

Given the nature of the climate challenge, cooperation with other countries and regional blocks is key in tackling climate change. Environmental pollution and climate change have transboundary effects. Brexit might allow the UK to ‘take back control’ of its borders when it comes to immigration, but the effects of climate change are global and cannot be stopped by the UK Border Control.

The UK reiterated its Commitment towards the Paris Agreement including through speeches such as the one given by Theresa May before the UN General Assembly in September 2017. Out of the EU, the UK will need to think what alliances can help it in reaching its climate goals (House of Lords 2017: 4). Such Alliances can include also the EU. In the Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom reached by the EU and the UK Government in November 2018 both parties pledged to: ‘take the necessary measures to meet their respective commitments to international agreements to address climate change, including those which implement the United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change, such as the Paris Agreement of 2015’ (The EU and the UK 2018: 357).

Unlike other policy areas, climate is an area in which cooperation between the EU and the UK is very likely. First, the UK and the countries of the EU are developed countries whose emissions are declining, also historically they have contributed substantially to GHG emissions. Their positions and interests in international climate negotiations are more likely to overlap. Second, the UK and the EU have developed a habit of cooperation over the last decades and this will facilitate joint work on climate issues. Personal relations between EU and UK climate officials might also contribute to maintaining a cooperative behaviour. Third, the EU and the UK will be interested in maintaining trade relations and, in this regard, they will have to uphold similar environmental and climate standards. This will be the case even more so if in the future the difference in the carbon footprint of a product will be captured by import tariffs.

Not only are the EU and the UK suited to work together on climate, but they might also have a need, more than ever, to do so over the next years. Brexit has the potential to accelerate the process of relative decline of the EU and its Members in relation to developing countries that might not always be interested in prioritising environmental protection. Working together on climate can help limit the negative effects of Brexit. Joint EU-UK action on climate change is necessary in the context in which the US is less engaged in fighting climate change under President Donald Trump. Potential re-election of Donald Trump would further consolidate the US as a climate laggard. Despite the decline in political commitment showed by important players such as the US and Brazil, scientific evidence is showing that firm climate action is needed to prevent catastrophic climate change. An increase of 1.5°C in global temperature compared with pre-industrial times could be reached by 2030 rather than by the end of the century, according to the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released in October 2018. This would trigger extreme weather conditions and biodiversity loss. Climate change will make an impact sooner and of a larger scale than anticipated by experts a few years ago.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

Alexandra-Maria Bocse is a Fellow at the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


[1] Vogler, John and Hannes Stephan. 2007. The European Union in Global Environmental Governance: Leadership in the Making? International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics 7 (4): 389-413; Zito, Anthony R. 2005. The European Union as an Environmental Leader in a Global Environment. Globalizations 2 (3): 363-375.

[2] The agreement reached by the EU and the UK in November 2018 on the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU states that ‘The United Kingdom shall implement a system of carbon pricing of at least the same effectiveness and scope as that provided by Directive 2003/87/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13 October 2003 establishing a scheme for greenhouse gas emission allowance trading within the Community’ (The EU and the UK 2018: 357). The EU ETS currently covers some non-EU states, such as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway.

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