Sink or swim.. UK’S choice in fight for our planet

The threat from cli­mate change is as im­me­di­ate as that from Brexit. And the two prob­lems must be tack­led to­gether, says JANE MER­RICK

The New European - - Agenda -

The warn­ings in a UN re­port that the world has just 12 years left to avert a global cli­mate catas­tro­phe will have, to many, put Brexit into per­spec­tive. Why, some asked, are we fret­ting about the de­tail of the deal to be struck with the EU when there is a big­ger pic­ture, a more alarm­ing cri­sis to worry about? Does it re­ally mat­ter ex­actly where bor­der checks be­tween Ire­land and North­ern Ire­land will be car­ried out, or whether our new deal is closer to Nor­way or Canada when, in half a gen­er­a­tion, our planet could reach a tip­ping point trig­ger­ing ris­ing seas and mass heat-re­lated deaths?

It is cer­tainly true that the warn­ings in the IPCC re­port are se­ri­ous and fright­en­ing, and should shock gov­ern­ments and in­di­vid­u­als alike into tak­ing ac­tion. For too long, the ‘event hori­zon’ on a cli­mate change dis­as­ter has been cast too far into the fu­ture, and the tar­get of lim­it­ing global tem­per­a­ture rises to 2C above pre-in­dus­trial lev­els has been too lax. Some ex­perts and ne­go­tia­tors have been push­ing for that tar­get to be a firmer 1.5C, and the IPCC does just that. The re­port should sharpen the fo­cus of all of us. Al­low­ing tem­per­a­tures to rise be­yond 1.5C will worsen the risk of flood­ing, drought, the death of coral and ex­treme poverty for mil­lions.

Yet to pit one prob­lem, cli­mate change, against an­other, Brexit, is the wrong way to frame the ar­gu­ment. There is an even big­ger pic­ture: Brexit and cli­mate change, and how the UK re­sponds to both chal­lenges, are linked.

It would be wrong, of course, to say that the dif­fer­ence be­tween a no-deal Brexit and the Che­quers plan is go­ing to have a di­rect im­pact on the coral reefs of the Pa­cific. But the UK has been – un­til now, at least – a ma­jor player in the fight against cli­mate change, able to in­flu­ence pol­icy at sum­mits as a key mem­ber of the EU. Af­ter the IPCC re­port was pub­lished in South Korea on Mon­day, the British govern­ment re­it­er­ated its com­mit­ment to meet­ing its car­bon emis­sions tar­gets de­spite Brexit.

Min­is­ters in­sisted that af­ter the UK leaves the EU next March, the coun­try will con­tinue its obli­ga­tions un­der the Paris Agree­ment, which sets tar­gets for in­di­vid­ual coun­tries to cut green­house gases from 2020. How­ever, Brexit is go­ing to make the UK’S job in meet­ing those tar­gets all the harder, be­cause roughly 55% of the coun­try’s car­bon emis­sion re­duc­tions are tied to EU reg­u­la­tions. En­forc­ing those com­mit­ments will be weak­ened af­ter Brexit.

As talks on Brexit reach the most crit­i­cal stage next week, and Theresa May holds fast to her ul­ti­ma­tum on Che­quers ver­sus no-deal, the lat­ter sce­nario be­comes more plau­si­ble by the day. A no-deal will have se­ri­ous im­pli­ca­tions in all sec­tors, but, specif­i­cally on the en­vi­ron­ment, it should be of huge con­cern.

Greener UK, the coali­tion of en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, pub­lished a re­port in July set­ting out how a no-deal would af­fect the en­vi­ron­ment, food se­cu­rity and pol­lu­tion, and their anal­y­sis on cli­mate change was stark: “Leav­ing the EU with­out a deal would make it harder for the UK to meet its emis­sions re­duc­tion tar­gets in the long term, in­crease en­ergy bills for con­sumers and un­der­mine in­vest­ment in crit­i­cal en­ergy in­fra­struc­ture,” the re­port said.

A no-deal Brexit would mean the UK cut­ting loose from the Eu­ro­pean Court of Jus­tice and, in turn, end­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion in the EU Emis­sions Trad­ing Scheme. Greener UK says this would cause “sig­nif­i­cant dis­rup­tion to busi­ness and a loss of more than £530 mil­lion in auc­tion rev­enues for the UK govern­ment”. A no-deal could lead to a drop in the car­bon price, be­cause op­er­a­tors will sell al­lowances as March 2019 nears, the re­port said, and a sud­den de­par­ture from the ETS would “dis­rupt ac­tion to meet the UK’S do­mes­tic car­bon tar­get, po­ten­tially

un­der­min­ing do­mes­tic am­bi­tion on cli­mate change”.

It would also see the UK leav­ing the in­ter­nal en­ergy mar­ket, mean­ing con­sumer en­ergy bills would in­crease due to charges added to cross-bor­der elec­tric­ity trad­ing.

Even if the ne­go­ti­a­tions re­sult in a deal, there are still ram­i­fi­ca­tions. The Greener UK re­port cites re­search by Na­tional Grid that leav­ing the in­ter­nal en­ergy mar­ket could cost the UK £500m – even if there were a deal on Brexit. With the de­tail of a Brexit deal still to be ham­mered out, it is un­clear whether the UK will stay in the ETS. But de­par­ture from the ECJ, a totemic de­mand of Brex­i­teers, will see the cre­ation of a new en­vi­ron­men­tal watch­dog, which, say cam­paign­ers, will weaken en­force­ment on meet­ing cli­mate change tar­gets.

As Rachel Ken­ner­ley, cli­mate cam­paigner at Friends of the Earth says: “The sci­ence is ir­refutable – the UK has to do all it can to cut cli­mate chang­ing emis­sions as soon and as deeply as pos­si­ble if we want to keep our planet live­able.

“So it’s wor­ry­ing that we’re los­ing ways to hold our govern­ment to ac­count on cli­mate when we leave the EU. In or out of Europe, the UK govern­ment needs to step up and make its fair share of emis­sions cuts.”

Cam­paign­ers also warn that leav­ing the EU will lessen the UK’S in­flu­ence in global cli­mate talks, be­cause the coun­try will no longer be mem­bers of a bloc with clout on ne­go­ti­at­ing new agree­ments. What’s more, as the UK turns to­wards the re­sult of the world for trade deals, it will be­come more re­liant on coun­tries like the US, which has pulled out of the Paris Agree­ment, as a con­se­quence of Don­ald Trump’s pro­tec­tion­ist agenda.

Re­gard­less of Brexit, the govern­ment’s ap­proach to the en­vi­ron­ment is glar­ingly in­con­sis­tent. Last month, the prime min­is­ter opened the world’s first zero emis­sion ve­hi­cle sum­mit in Birm­ing­ham. In a speech, she pledged that the UK would “lead from the front” on the de­vel­op­ment of green ve­hi­cles by com­mit­ting to all new cars and vans to be zero emis­sion by 2040, with the help of £106m from the govern­ment. Cut­ting fuel emis­sions from ve­hi­cles will go a huge way to meet­ing

Bri­tain’s com­mit­ment un­der the Paris ac­cord, yet as laud­able as May’s pledge was, 2040 is a woe­fully dis­tant dead­line – par­tic­u­larly given the IPCC’S warn­ing that the world has to act be­fore 2030 be­fore the tip­ping point is reached. En­vi­ron­ment sec­re­tary Michael Gove has helped en­sure cut­ting back on plas­tic has soared to the top of the govern­ment’s pri­or­i­ties, and that has al­ready made a dif­fer­ence to the way house­holds re­gard sin­gle use plas­tic straws and cof­fee cups, which in turn will re­duce pol­lu­tion in the world’s oceans.

Yet this war on plas­tic from the De­part­ment for En­vi­ron­ment, Food and Ru­ral Af­fairs jars with the an­nounce­ment by the prime min­is­ter at the Con­ser­va­tive con­fer­ence last week that the govern­ment will keep in place the freeze on fuel duty, de­spite sug­ges­tions last month by the chan­cel­lor, Philip Ham­mond, that it would be scrapped in the Bud­get later this month. An in­crease in the cost of fuel would have en­cour­aged some driv­ers to switch to more en­vi­ron­men­tally-friendly forms of trans­port, which would help cut emis­sions.

If there is a ma­jor les­son from the IPCC re­port this week, it is that in­di­vid­u­als, as well as gov­ern­ments, can make changes to the way we live to help keep the rise in global tem­per­a­tures in check. But be­havioural re­sponses by con­sumers need to be helped, not in­hib­ited, by govern­ment pol­icy – and the fuel duty freeze un­der­mines that.

What the IPCC re­port makes clear is that cli­mate change is no longer only a threat for our grand­chil­dren, but an im­mi­nent dan­ger that needs ur­gent ac­tion. It does not mean we should put aside fears over Brexit in place of the greater fear of cli­mate catas­tro­phe, but it un­der­lines how Brexit is not a process hap­pen­ing in iso­la­tion: it is linked to all sec­tors and in­dus­tries, and all as­pects of our daily lives. A cli­mate change tip­ping point can be avoided if we all take ac­tion now. It is just a pity that Brexit is likely to ham­per that fight.

Photo: Joe Bunni / Getty Im­ages

RIS­ING TIDE: Polar bears have be­come an em­blem in the fight against cli­mate change

Photo: Mauro Pi­mentel/afp/ Getty Im­ages

Sources: BP Sta­tis­ti­cal Re­view of World En­ergy 2015; World Bank World De­vel­op­ment In­di­ca­tors GREEN THREAT: Right-wing Brazil­ian pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Jair Bol­sonaro

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