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25th Sep 2021

What will Brexit mean for climate action in EU and UK?

  • Even whether the UK remains in the EU's emissions trading scheme is still up for discussion - meanwhile, trade deals with the US and elsewhere could undermine any UK green credentials (Photo: John Blower)

The UK has played a key role in ensuring strong EU climate action, but weakened relationships between London and Brussels as a result of Brexit could put at risk joint efforts to achieve the 2050 emissions-neutrality goal - which both parties have committed to.

"Whatever happens next, it's vital that the UK and the EU keep working together to tackle the major environmental challenges we all face as the climate breakdown is a global issue," Greenpeace EU climate policy adviser Sebastian Mang told EUobserver.

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Despite the differences, "the EU and the UK have the responsibility to strengthen environmental standards to respond to the climate and ecological emergency," he added.

Before leaders gather at the next UN climate summit (COP26) in Glasgow at the end of this year, governments must submit new or updated 2030 climate plans to limit global temperatures as close as possible to 1.5 degrees - the main objective of the Paris Agreement.

COP26 in Scotland

"COP26 will be a big test for both to see whether they [the UK and the EU] take the Paris Agreement seriously by stepping up immediate climate action," Mang added.

However, Brexit has led the UK to pursue a trade deal with the US - which has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement - as rapidly as possible and seek to start negotiations with other countries regardless of their environmental policies.

"These new deals, that may well actively worsen climate impacts abroad, fit awkwardly with plans to move towards net-zero emissions in the UK," said the Brexit spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, Kierra Box, who believes that the UK's political influence in multilateral climate change negotiations might be reduced due to Brexit.

"The UK will have to fight its way back to a position of influence by showing we have got to grip with these issues outside the EU, starting with the UN climate negotiations in Glasgow," Box added.

As the UK seeks to redefine its role in the world after Brexit, Josh Burke from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change warned that the UK must present new climate policies ahead of the summit to enforce its political influence.

"The [2050] target is meaningless without a credible policy framework," he said.

"The UK will need to be seen to be doing a lot more to combat climate change ahead of the COP26," added Burke, who believes that Brexit has been a "serious distraction" for the UK to achieve progress in climate change mitigation policies.

Emissions trading scheme unclear

Meanwhile, the confluence of net-zero emission target and Brexit might present an opportunity for the UK to reconsider its options for pricing carbon since it is unclear whether the UK will formally continue to participate in the EU emissions trading system (ETS).

The UK has stated a preference for a domestic ETS, either linked to the EU ETS, or as a standalone, said Burke, who thinks that the best solution would be a carbon tax, rather than a standalone UK ETS which is likely to be a "very costly option".

However, this topic is still on the table for post-Brexit negotiations, according to the Brexit spokesperson for Friends of the Earth.

However, according to Box, future relationships between Brussels and London should depend on the UK guaranteeing non-regression of legal protections for the environment, including delivering on targets already agreed.

"The EU should call the future UK's office of environmental protection to be robust, independent and hold equal legal powers to the EU Court of Justice to ensure the UK can demonstrate compliance with agreed standards and mechanisms underpinning this strong future relationship," she said.

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