While the environment is often treated as a national issue, international co-operation remains pivotal to producing the results that will adequately tackle climate change. As such the UK needs to re-imagine its environmental relationship with the EU27.
The environment should transcend national policy and contribute to foreign policy, considering the grave threat climate change poses towards the whole world and not just a few states. Such is the interconnectivity of countries and economies today that it should be expected that the UK’s environmental policies will come under strain from external shocks that could stem from a number of different geopolitical factors. Yet the most pressing of these might derive from the EU’s future relationship with the UK.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted that global temperatures will rise by 3°C by 2100 and 2°C within the next 12 years, despite some international co-operation on the issue, testament to the gravity of the problem.
One could argue that drawbacks lie with the official charters only including advisory and voluntary aims to reduce global warming, with the Paris climate change agreement proving especially flimsy in its achievements. America’s exit and its own inability to reach targets is also a cases in point. Clearly, there is a lack of tangible incentives for countries to work together in fear of being hurt economically by the increased red tape, and in this way becoming uncompetitive in terms of output compared to those who continue to produce vast volumes of emissions and pollution such as China.
The EU has proven itself to be different. It has developed a clear goal in pushing member states to contribute to a “resource-efficient, green, and competitive low-carbon economy”. Since the region has integrated further, European states have worked well to tackle the environmental issue through collective effort despite significantly less pressure 30 years ago then as there is now due to growing awareness, green parties, and activist movements. In 2017 the EU emitted 4,466m tonnes of greenhouse gases compared with 5,720 in 1990, an impressive decrease in trend when considering the fact that more nation states have joined the union in the time period and the destabilising nature of the 2008 global financial crisis that could have stalled progress. While its own targets have not been met recently, progress still continues.
Such success heightens the importance of the environment in the UK’s future relationship with the EU. With most media outlets focusing on trade and security, it is easy to overlook the benefits enjoyed by the UK in being a member of a group that is constantly pushing for innovation to improve the environmental state of Europe. Environmental charity Friends of the Earth looked into the relationship further, with a paper titled ‘UK Environmental Policy Post-Brexit: A Risk Analysis’. They found that the Government’s strategy not only proved vague regarding the issue, but also held targets that were less ambitious than the EU’s. The notion that interstate cooperation within the EU helps harmonise environmental goals is ultimately reinforced by the study’s conclusion that better environmental outcomes for the UK would be enjoyed with a closer relationship to Europe.
Of course, the type of Brexit deal will affect relations between the UK and EU. A ‘no deal’ Brexit would prove the most disruptive in terms of policy links with the EU, while a ‘hard Bresit’ could see only the most important environmental regulations retained in the UK. On the other side, if Brexit were completely stopped then Britain would return to the European Parliament reputation damaged but still a leading member state on the environment, perhaps being able to compel others to declare a climate emergency as the UK and Republic of Ireland have.
Global warming alone should be an issue important enough to transcend Brexit and bring negotiators on both sides, if not any others, to consensus on the issue. Shaking off European environment laws to reduce regulations would be done to the detriment of the UK’s clear progress on the environmental issue as part of the European project, and the politicians will do well to acknowledge that nuance.
Thomas Bradbury, studies politics at the University of Exeter.