Warming relations: UK-EU climate cooperation after Brexit

With Joe Biden about to enter the White House, London could need to display ambition on climate issues, or face being left behind by Washington and Brussels if they identified this policy area as a vehicle for rapprochement

Coordinator for Pan-European Data Projects
Etienne Ansotte | banner added by ECFR

With negotiations for a post-Brexit trade agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union continuing, the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) is a light at the end of the tunnel for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In November 2021, the UK will host COP26 in Glasgow, with Italy contributing on preparatory work through meetings in Milan. The Johnson government has encountered serious troubles in the run-up to the event, as reflected in the prime minister’s decision to sack the designated president of the conference. Nevertheless, COP26 provides an opportunity for the UK government to display leadership on the global stage, advance specific and ambitious commitments, and renew UK-EU cooperation on climate policy for a post-coronavirus world.

The UK Special of the European Council on Foreign Relation’s EU Coalition Explorer, which surveyed EU27 and UK policy experts on a wide range of issues, shows that both sides see in climate policy a promising avenue for cooperation after Brexit. British experts rank this policy area in first place for UK-EU cooperation; their EU27 counterparts in fifth place. Experts in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden rank climate in first place as a general policy priority. The EU’s three most contacted, responsive, and influential member states – Germany, France, and the Netherlands – rank climate as their second most important policy area for the coming years. Climate policy is the only area that makes it into the top ten priorities of all 28 countries surveyed by ECFR for the project.

Before Brexit, the UK was one of the EU’s climate champions. The UK’s targets for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions were regularly among the bloc’s most ambitious – Johnson’s recent announcement that the UK would cut emissions by 68 per cent compared with 1990 levels by 2030 exceeds the EU’s goal of 55 per cent for the same period. The country also consistently pushed for ambitious goals in EU intergovernmental forums, working to improve the Emissions Trading System (ETS) as the union’s primary mechanism to reduce carbon emissions. In June 2016, ETS carbon prices dropped after the UK – the EU’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases – voted to leave the union.

In the past, the EU expanded ETS caps each time a new member state joined the bloc. With Brexit, for the first time, the EU will have to adjust these caps as the result of the withdrawal of one of its member states. Without the UK at the table, this could result in less ambitious carbon pricing. Moreover, Brexit will cost the EU a major source of climate financing for the green transition and the UK government’s contributions to the EU budget for promoting climate action globally.

The Johnson government’s recent threat to abandon parts of the withdrawal agreement calls into question its commitment to international agreements generally, including those on climate change.

Yet, when it comes to cooperating with the EU on climate action, the Johnson government’s ambitions have been lukewarm at best. A paper released by the government of his predecessor, Theresa May, in 2018 recognised “the UK’s and the EU’s shared interest in global action on climate change and the mutual benefits of a broad agreement on climate change cooperation”. But the political declaration on the framework for the future UK-EU relationship, which Johnson renegotiated with much fanfare, only reaffirms “the Parties’ commitments to international agreements to tackle climate change, including those which implement the United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change, such as the Paris Agreement”. Moreover, the Johnson government’s recent threat to abandon parts of the withdrawal agreement calls into question its commitment to international agreements generally, including those on climate change.

In November, Johnson should use COP26 as a stage from which to launch an ambitious agenda for joint UK-EU climate action. Such an agenda should encompass several items that could help align the two sides, both structurally and in policy terms.

As the end of the transition period nears, the UK government has drawn up plans to create a British version of the ETS, one separate from the EU’s. There are benefits to maintaining a close link between the two systems. For one thing, the EU might apply its long-planned carbon border tax to UK imports if British and European carbon prices differ too much. This also applies to the UK’s environmental regulations for goods it trades with the EU. Should the carbon footprint of British goods significantly diverge from that of comparable EU products in the coming years, the former could be subject to such a tax.

Moreover, coordination between the two systems would allow London and Brussels to play a two-level game: the UK government could justify some of its policy choices, such as including additional industries in the ETS regulatory framework, to domestic audiences with reference to the EU, while EU negotiators could leverage UK demands for ambitious emissions caps to bring along member states that have tended to ignore the climate crisis. The UK and the EU could amplify these effects by not only coordinating their systems but maintaining a joint one. There are precedents for this approach: non-EU members Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway already take part in the ETS.

Similarly, Norway and Iceland submit their nationally determined contributions – the emissions-reduction and climate-change adaptation targets required under the Paris Agreement – as part of their membership of the European Economic Area. In this, joint commitments through regional organisations serve as the basis for implementing climate policy. Yet complementary national commitments can exceed targets. Close UK-EU cooperation could help raise the standards of the entire bloc without preventing the UK or individual EU member states from submitting even more ambitious targets.

Lastly, UK-EU cooperation on climate policy is likely to become even more important following the US presidential election. With Joe Biden about to enter the White House, London could need to display ambition on climate issues, or face being left behind by Washington and Brussels if they identified this policy area as a vehicle for rapprochement. A common UK-EU position would ensure that European interests were properly represented in transatlantic and global efforts to address climate change.

This essay is part of a series of commentaries on the EU Coalition Explorer UK Special. Two other commentaries discuss the potential for UK-EU cooperation on trade and defence policy.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Coordinator for Pan-European Data Projects