The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

04 Dec 2015

Relationship with the EU

Role in the World


One of the most important international environmental conferences of the decade is currently taking place. The Paris talks will bring together 194 countries, in a renewed effort to build a lasting international commitment on climate change, after the disappointing outcome of the conference in Copenhagen in 2009. The UK is a crucial actor, having been the first state in the world to adopt a legally-binding Climate Change Act, which underpins its domestic decarbonisation and an equally ambitious diplomatic stance on climate change.

In the run-up to the EU referendum, the debate in Britain has so far centred on the impact of EU membership on domestic policy. Critics have argued that EU membership constrains the UK’s leeway over policy decisions, and perhaps forces it to adopt policies it does not want. Here, we ask a question that has received far less attention: how does EU membership affect the UK’s international diplomacy? To answer this question, we explore the impact of EU membership on the UK’s position at the Paris conference, and examine if and how UK climate policy would change in the event of ‘Brexit’.

Since the disastrous 2009 Copenhagen conference where China and the USA dominated proceedings, UN negotiators have radically changed tack towards a more bottom-up approach. Rather than targets being decided by the UN, individual states decide on their intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). The EU then negotiates and submits an INDC encompassing all 28 member states. This move is hugely significant: the EU is one of the top emitters in the world, but when it commits to a deal, it delivers 28 ratifications. In a complex and contested issue area such as climate change, this counts for a lot.

The EU’s joint pledge is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030, against a 1990 baseline. This target was not unilaterally imposed upon the UK; rather, the UK exercised its negotiating power to shape the target. Having already cut its emissions by 35% from 1990 levels, the UK was one of a small group of countries pushing for a 40% target, against others, such as Germany and Poland, which were willing to accept something weaker.

The talks go beyond greenhouse gases, however, and also take in targets for switching to renewable energy sources. Here, the UK has blocked the development of targets for each state. It has been able to do so because of a distinction between environmental and energy policy: in the latter, Member States continue to exercise a veto over EU energy policy, and as a result, the EU adopted a target of 27% for renewables.

So the UK has therefore helped shape the EU’s position in Paris, both by pushing for more ambitious targets but also seeking successfully to retain discretion over how energy policy is employed to achieve climate goals. But what would happen to its position if it left the EU?

The answer depends on whether the UK remains a part of the European Economic Area (EEA) – which ensures free movement of persons, goods, service and capital for its members. The three states that join the EU in comprising the EEA – Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway – have submitted the same target to Paris as the EU’s 40% reduction, with a view to fulfilling this goal through collective delivery with the EU. Switzerland and Monaco, both non-EEA European states, have actually gone beyond the EU target and committed to reducing emissions by 50% based on 1990 levels by 2030.

Thus, if the UK remained a part of the EEA, it would be likely to stay relatively close to the climate policies of the EU, because of commitments encoded in the Climate Change Act of 2008. Regardless of the UK’s membership status, a combination of domestic public and NGO political pressure, and the UK’s legally-binding obligations under the Climate Change Act, mean that that it would very likely remain a climate leader in the near future, at least. But again, it is important to remember that EU-UK relations are a two way street.  From the perspective of those Member States seeking stronger common policies, the absence of one of the key climate leaders of recent years will be perceived as a significant blow.

In conclusion, the UK has shaped the EU’s 2030 climate and energy targets in the run-up to Paris. The UK pushed for more ambitious greenhouse gas targets and the removal of binding energy obligations, and achieved both. In the event of Brexit, the UK would no longer need to subscribe to the joint targets proposed by the EU, but may be closely linked if it remains part of the EEA. However, the UK would lose its seat at the negotiating table when new EU targets are formulated, while the EU, in turn, would lose a leading pro-climate voice.

By Charlotte Burns, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Politics and Policy at the University of York; Andy Jordan, Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia; and Paul Tobin, Research Fellow at the University of York.


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