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.

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