Climatic challenges ahead

19th July 2017

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Bob Ward and Victoria Druce on why the UK's climate change policies are unlikely to be derailed by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump

The UK is currently a world leader on climate change action. The 2008 Climate Change Act was the world’s first legislation to set legally binding targets for reducing emissions, and requires the UK make a cut of at least 80% by 2050 compared with 1990 through a series of five-year carbon budgets.

Last year, parliament passed the so-called Fifth Carbon Budget, which means that annual emissions for the period between 2028 and 2032 must be, on average, 57% lower than they were in 1990. The Act commits the government to publish its plans for meeting that target “as soon as is reasonably practicable”, although it has already been delayed several times this year. It will have to extend significant action beyond the power sector to transport and heating, for instance.

The latest figures show that the UK has already reduced its annual emissions of greenhouse gases by about 40% since 1990, mainly because of a decline in the use of coal for electricity generation, while increasing its GDP by around two-thirds.

Moving target?

As a result, the UK has cut its annual emissions at a faster rate than average for the European Union. The remaining 27 member states after Brexit will need to act even more quickly to meet the European Union’s ‘nationally determined contribution’ to the Paris Agreement of a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030 compared with 1990.

Though Brexit will not change UK ambition for climate action, it may change how its targets are achieved. For instance, the UK’s future membership of the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) is now in doubt because it is overseen by the European Court of Justice.

The scheme, which includes about 40% of the UK’s annual emissions, has been a relatively cost-effective way for UK firms to take action. It will be a costly process for the UK to withdraw from the scheme, although it would be able to set up a national tax or emissions trading system that avoided the defects of the European Union’s scheme.

Waning influence?

In addition, the UK after Brexit will not be a formal member of the negotiating bloc of European Union member states in international climate negotiations. While its track record of action means the UK is highly regarded by many countries, it would have more influence if it negotiated in cooperation with others, such as the High Ambition Coalition – a group of 35 countries committed to tougher climate change policies. The coalition argued for the increased ambition of the Paris Agreement to keep global warming to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C”, as well as its commitment to achieving ‘net zero’ annual emissions by the second half of the century.

2° centigrade

The High Ambition Coalition argues for the increased ambition of the Paris Agreement to keep global warming to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5°C”

The Paris Agreement will withstand the muddled and confused announcement by President Trump that the United States will both withdraw and launch negotiations to re-enter it. The agreement states that no country can withdraw within three years of it coming into force, and the withdrawal process takes a further year. Hence, the US cannot officially complete withdrawal before 4 November 2020, the day after the next presidential election.

President Trump’s criticism of the agreement was undermined by his reliance on an absurd study that made unrealistic assumptions about the costs of the US honouring its nationally determined contribution and his false claim that it was legally binding. His chief economic adviser has also warned him that withdrawal from the agreement will not revive the coal industry, which is being put out of business by cheaper sources of electricity, particularly shale gas and renewables.

Pledge of support

Many cities, states and companies have pledged their support for the Paris Agreement in the wake of President Trump’s announcement. Hawaii’s governor signed bills to incorporate parts of the agreement into the state’s law; 331 city mayors have formally pledged to pursue its goals; and major companies, including Twitter, Google, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and Apple, have also made similar commitments.

Other world leaders have criticised President Trump’s opposition to the agreement. Only Nicaragua and Syria have not signed it.

In the face of so much domestic and international support for the agreement, the US may now find it more difficult to strike new trade deals. It is not yet clear if the UK will join other countries in publicly challenging President Trump about his position, given that the government seems desperate to increase trade with the US after Brexit.

Low-carbon opportunities

Nonetheless, the UK should seek potential opportunities for new exports of low-carbon goods and services to the US. Low-carbon markets could be worth £1trn to £1.8trn a year by 2030 globally, according to a recent study commissioned by the UK Committee on Climate Change.

It is clear that the Paris Agreement will be a major driver of growth and prosperity within and outside the European Union – even without President Trump’s support.

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