If climate change concerns you, Brexit should horrify you.

More than 70% of Brits think climate change is a more pressing long-term issue than Brexit. But no country can beat the climate crisis alone. International institutions like the EU are the only solution.

From record-breaking heatwaves in France and Germany to the extreme weather events plaguing both Asia and North America, the past year has seen the realities of climate crisis made painfully clear. It is no surprise, then, that Brits are waking up to the danger of inaction on climate change. They are not alone. 

Greta Thunberg, a Swedish high-schooler turned climate activist, has inspired thousands of young people around the globe to create a ‘youth strike’ movement, demanding urgent action on climate change.

Fridays for Future march in Bonn, Germany. Photo: Mika Baumeister.

Similarly, Extinction Rebellion gained notoriety for their campaign of peaceful civil disobedience in London, and have since expanded to numerous countries. But protest alone won’t solve the climate crisis.

The EU helps countries stick to their commitments

As an international problem, climate change naturally requires an international response. A necessary first step towards achieving this is, of course, a shared desire to reduce carbon emissions. But desire is meaningless unless countries are able agree how to distribute responsibility and then to enforce such an agreement.

The US’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and the failure of subsequent climate summits illustrates that, even with the best will in the world, cooperation on climate change is doomed to failure without the right institutions. Goodwill only takes you so far – you also need solid rules, and that’s what the EU has.

The EU has proven capable of finding agreement on the distribution of responsibility and then seeing that everyone lives up to their commitments. Beyond its own borders, the EU is also a global leader on fulfilling and enforcing climate goals.

The EU was one of only a handful of jurisdictions to implement binding emissions targets in the initial 2008–2012 period of the Kyoto Protocol, and one of even fewer to do the same in the following 2012–2020 period. Unlike the United States, the EU remains party to the 2016 Paris Agreement.

EU measures to tackle climate change

Within its borders, the EU provides opportunities for more environmentally conscious member states to export successful national policies across the continent. This was the case in 2009, for example, when the Commission recommended the roll-out of ‘feed-in tariffs’ for renewable energy throughout the EU.

Feed-in tariffs, which award higher value contracts to renewable energy producers to accommodate higher costs, had long been used in countries like Germany, Portugal and Spain.

The issue of assigning responsibilities for emissions reductions was settled by the EU’s effort-sharing arrangements, agreed as part of the so-called “20-20-20” package. According to the legislation, by 2020 the EU will collectively reduce its emissions by 20%, increase energy efficiency by 20% and increase the share of renewable energy in the electricity supply to 20%.

More recently, incoming Commission President von der Leyen dedicated a central part of her pitch to MEPs to a pledge to achieve carbon neutrality in the EU by 2050.

Beneath these headline targets, each member state has its own legally binding targets, either higher or lower than the collective target depending on each member state’s relative wealth and thus their capacity to afford such changes.

Picture by Nicholas Raymond.

Unlike countries such as the US, EU member states are unable to withdraw from their climate commitments thanks to the primacy of European law over national law.

With the EU on track to meet its 2020 goals and soon to take on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, it’s clear that supranational structures like the EU offer the most effective venue for creating and implementing climate policies.

Where Europe has led, others have followed

As of 2013, the EU was responsible for 11% of global CO2 emissions, behind only the US and China. Europe-wide climate legislation can therefore make a great difference for reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, while also providing a model on which other countries can base their own legislation.

Combined with the economic leverage accompanying the EU’s status as the world’s largest commercial market, this potential to lead by example has seen European climate policies replicated around the world.

For example, in 2005, the EU launched the world’s first greenhouse gas emissions trading system, which it strengthened in 2013. The European experiment was followed by subnational schemes in Japan and the US, with a national scheme set to go into operation in China next year.

In fact, China has frequently taken cues from the EU in its climate policy. Though still far from the world’s cleanest economy, China has followed the EU’s lead by replicating its energy efficiency labelling system, matching its energy efficiency target for 2020 and by basing its own vehicle emissions standards on those already established in Europe.

In 2005, the EU and China established a Partnership on Climate Change, and later agreed a €500 million loan to fund a raft of schemes aimed at tackling climate change in China.

Brexit Britain will be a polluter’s paradise

Following the rise of smaller parties, including the Greens, in the European elections, environmentalists now play a fundamental role in shaping the EU’s political agenda through the European Parliament.

Photo: Dunk / Flickr

It’s hard to imagine the same being true in Westminster, where smaller parties are penalised by the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, leaving the Greens with a sole MP despite their reasonably strong poll numbers.

Already a laggard by comparison to some member states, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU brings the danger that British efforts to reduce emissions will be scaled back. With an Environment Secretary who has consistently supported fracking and voted against measures to tackle climate change, the possibility of the UK backsliding on previous commitments is all too real.

In practice, Brexiteer promises of a bonfire of EU “red tape” could mean a loosening of emissions and energy efficiency standards, perhaps the end of emissions trading. Another frightening possibility is that the UK will follow the lead of Donald Trump by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.

Even with the best intentions, an island of 60 million inhabitants bears only a fraction of the potential to influence global climate change policy as a continent of 500 million.

That there will no longer be a supranational body holding the British government to its word will make any future pledges all the less convincing – and the prospects for the planet all the more bleak.

Despite itself, Brexit is making Britain more European than ever.

Looking beyond the Channel

As a graduate taking advantage of what may be my last taste of freedom of movement, I have the privilege to follow goings-on in Britain from the perspective of our friends across the Channel. Something immediately striking is that, though they are typically bemused by the Brexit process seemingly going round in circles, the French are generally aware of what is going in the UK.

Switch on Franceinfo and you’ll be brought news from around the continent, whether that news has immediate implications for France or not. This is in stark contrast to the behaviour of British broadcasters, who usually act as if the rest of the continent goes on holiday when it’s not doing something that directly affects the UK. Some may be surprised to learn that the Tour de France 2019 has been and gone, evidently erased from the media cycle for the crime of lacking a British winner.

But Brexit seems to be shifting our behaviour in a more European direction. Where once events on the continent felt far removed from British life, the realities of the Brexit negotiations have suddenly given them a sense of great consequence. Slowly but surely, British media outlets are beginning to give European news events the kind of coverage they already receive in countries across the continent.

view of London underground
view of London underground, UK.

Perhaps we can thank this greater sense of connectedness with Europe for the fact that Britain now has one of the largest and most active pro-European movements in Europe. It’s no secret that Brits have hardly been enthusiastic about the UK’s membership of the EU. Of course, citizens in other countries have historically been more positive about their country’s relationship with the EU, and this is manifested in the more pro-European tone of their political debates. But that isn’t to say Britain is the only country afflicted by Euroscepticism. Widespread support for the Eurosceptic Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) in France demonstrates this. 

Though you’re still much more likely to find a European flag waving on the streets of Paris than those of London, the necessity of halting the national disaster of Brexit has awakened a pro-European movement which is unparalleled on the continent. Though the French are – for the moment – generally supportive of EU membership, this support is mostly of a passive kind. Those actively fighting for Britain’s place in Europe are more vocal, more energised and more numerous than their continental counterparts, and bizarrely, we have Brexit to thank for it.

Manif à la britannique

The ways France differs from the UK are countless, but possibly the most significant is the French attitude to protest. While Brits are famous for their capacity to whinge and moan, this dissatisfaction rarely translates into mass mobilisation, and there is a tendency to sneer at street protests and bemoan the disruption they cause.

For the French, la manif is a national pastime. When the French are unhappy, they make sure that someone in power knows about it, as the ongoing gilets jaunes saga illustrates perfectly. The spark which led to thousands of French donning their high-vis and taking to the streets was nothing more than an increase in the tax on diesel, but the movement grew into a general revolt against the entire Macron government. At one time, a full two thirds of French viewed the gilets jaunes favourably, despite the resulting travel chaos and widespread incidents of violence and vandalism, most famously at the Arc de Triomphe.

Group of people are protesting
Group of people are protesting

Though I don’t expect a sea of yellow vests to descend on the streets of Britain any time soon, there are signs that our attitude to protest is edging closer to that of our Gallic neighbours. While for the left “demos” have never fallen out of fashion, mass protests have been opened up to a much wider audience after the Brexit vote and the subsequent dismissal of the 48% of Brits who voted to remain. The Put It To The People march this spring is estimated to have been one of the largest of its kind for decades, as a group of Parisian day-trippers I shared a coach with learnt to their horror on the morning of the march. 

These protests have even welcomed Conservatives into the fold. The 86-year-old Tory grandee Michael Heseltine attended a demonstration for the first time in his life to support a People’s Vote. With the March For Change just passed and the Let Us Be Heard march scheduled for October, Brexit is putting large-scale protest back into the mainstream of British political life. And the surprisingly positive public response to the Extinction Rebellion protests in London may suggest that this new-found appetite for demonstration may not just be limited to the European issue.

Though the sight of Boris Johnson in No 10, surrounded by only the most rabid Brextremists, will rightly alarm us, there is reason to be cheerful. Despite itself, the ideological project which seeks to rip Britain from the heart of Europe and its disastrous implementation are, in some ways, having the opposite effect.

Every day, more and more Brits are tuned in to news from around the continent. Every day, more and more Brits feel strongly attached to the EU. And every day, more and more Brits are ready to stand up and fight for their convictions.