Brexit: a selfish option for our future climate?

On June 23rd, Britain will go to the polls to decide whether the nation will be better off in or out of the European Union. Thus far, the majority of the debate surrounding Brexit has concentrated on issues of international trade, migration, and finance

The real issue is climate change and exit from the EU would represent a huge failure in the fight against the biggest global challenge of our times.

The EU has worked miracles for Britain environmentally. On entry to the EU in 1973, the UK was considered the dirty man of Europe. It was the only nation in Western Europe failing to control pollution from its cars and power stations. A nation with an extremely poor quality of air, rivers and coasts. Joining the EU meant pressure to clean up its act, and the threat of unlimited fines saw drastic improvements in the environment of the UK.

In the decades since Britain has morphed into an environmental leader within the EU, championing in particular, action for climate change.  Successive British governments have played their part in initiatives to de-carbonise the global economy, with EU membership allowing Britain to punch considerably above its weight globally in climate negotiations, providing a platform to influence the climate policies of not only its neighbors but global superpowers such as the USA and China. Brexit would undoubtedly end the UK’s influence as an international leader in climate change. This notion is supported by numerous voices in the field including Professor Paul Etkins OBE, who is Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy at UCL  who says that “Britons have benefited greatly from EU environmental policy, and Britain inside the EU has also been able to shape it. We would lose this ability if we were to leave the EU, while it is very likely that we would still have to follow EU environmental laws if we wished to retain access to the EU’s single market. This would effectively reduce UK sovereignty rather than increase it. Paradoxically, perhaps, membership of the EU is an essential condition for the UK to exercise some sovereign influence over the European forces that affect it.”

Typically, the Brexit debate has centered, rather selfishly, on what the EU does for us. Instead, especially in the case of climate change, we should consider what our membership allows us to achieve collaboratively for both Europe and the world. Alone, the UK accounts for a mere 2% of the world’s emissions, the EU in total about 20%. The continuation of the UK as a leading advocate for action on climate change in an ambitious EU, therefore, represents a major force in tackling a significant proportion of the world’s emissions, especially given the power of the EU to lobby other nations. Without the UK, the Union would likely become far less driven to combat climate change, and would undoubtedly become a weaker and less respected force in climate negotiations. 

Climate change and carbon emissions have no regard for borders. Emissions from Poland or Hungary will effect us just as much as our own. Outside the EU, even if the UK became more climate conscious, it would have a limited impact compared to a similar increase in consciousness within the Union, while still facing the consequences of emissions outside the UK. Currently, inside the EU we have a voice, a platform to achieve serious change globally. An exit from the EU would mean forgoing our seat at the negotiation table, losing our ability to shape the future of other countries’ emissions and the planet as a whole. The collaborative strength of the EU led by Britain was demonstrated by recent events at the Paris climate talks. Here, the EU negotiating team was lead by a British diplomat who persuaded the EU to support a long-term climate goal which raised the world’s ambitions on climate change every five years. Acting alone the UK would never have never succeeded in such negotiations, however with the lobbying power of the other 27 EU nations the UK succeeded. 

Ignoring the muddled arguments over finance, migration, and security, an exit from the EU would mean a loss of any credibility in negotiating climate change agreements, an admission of failure to protect our environment. Inside the EU, the UK not only has to abide by strict EU climate policy but also has the unrivaled power to alter the course of climate change, to drive forward innovative policy and help protect our planet. Climate change is a borderless problem and therefore combating it requires greater collaborative action, not disintegration as a result of our inability to agree with economic concerns. I leave you with the words of Carline Lucas Green MP “If we join forces with other countries, strengthening the EU-wide rules on carbon emissions that are already in place, then we have a chance of keeping future generations safe. Going it alone simply is not an option for a challenge of this magnitude.”