Climate Change and the Irony of Brexit

jonathan-kemper-1432454-unsplash.jpgAlbert Weale argues that at a time of a climate crisis trumping frontiers, international governance is needed more than ever. Leaving the EU and its structures of cooperation could thus be counterproductive for the UK as the country sets new bold and needed  environmental objectives.

Brexit is full of ironies. Consider Mrs May’s recent announcement that the UK government will commit itself to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The audacity of the policy is matched only by the urgency of its need. It is obviously intended to show global leadership as well as to leave a legacy of the Prime Minister’s term in office other than failed Brexit negotiations. And yet nothing could be more ironic than leaving the EU announcing as your signature policy a set of measures that by anyone’s reckoning require international cooperation.

Policies on climate change require international cooperation because a stable climate is the ultimate public good. If it benefits anyone, it benefits everyone. Moreover, it does not matter where the climate change gases are emitted. Their effects are global. The result is that countries have an incentive to free ride on the contributions of others. Without an intense degree of international cooperation, no one country can have the assurance that the costly investments it makes will not be undermined by those seeking the benefits of the public good without paying the costs.

Standard public goods theory tells us that with any shared good, the right level of political organisation would be coextensive with the set of beneficiaries of the good. So in the case of global climate change, this would imply world government. However, this is clearly impossible. The next best functional substitute is agreement and commitment by large regional bloc. And since the EU has been a leading actor in global climate change negotiations to date, this means in the case of the UK that it should look to the EU.
Moreover, in the present political climate, and in the wake of the EU elections, now is the time for the EU to commit itself to net zero emissions by 2050. Giving priority to this target has already been called for by Belgium, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. They have suggested that EU members to set ambitious goals for action on climate change, including spending 25% of the budget on projects aimed at combating climate change.

There are several reasons why policies along these lines provide the best way to develop the distinctive contribution that the EU can make to the welfare of its citizens, and so begin to cement its post-crisis legitimacy. The first is that successful action will benefit from the scale of the EU. Consider the example of wind power. Although it is true that there is nowhere in Europe where the wind blows every day, there is no day in Europe where the wind does not blow somewhere. So the case for rapidly expanding interconnectors is very strong in such a way that the EU can become more self-sufficient in its energy generation.

Secondly, the principle of an energy union is one that the EU is already committed to. Although making the sustainability transition would be a significant and bold step, it would not involve developing the competences of the EU in areas in which at present it is the competences of the member states that predominate. In that sense, there would be no Great Leap Forward. To date, although there has been some detachment of greenhouse gas emissions and economic growth, the gains are relatively modest. To take the effectiveness of policy forwards requires greater priority.

Thirdly, the spending needed to achieve the energy change is genuine investment and not consumption. To the extent to which it represents a debt burden, it is a debt that will repay itself in the future. If the spending could be financed by a pan-European carbon tax, then that would also help nudging individuals towards the sorts of behavioural change that is required. That might be too much of a Great Leap Forward, but it would not be a competence change that shifted powers from the member states. Also, of course, experience with the gilets jaunes in France suggests the need for careful policy sequencing.

Fourthly, the policy could be located in an over-lapping consensus among the political parties comprising a majority in the European Parliament. The Socialists and Democrats together with the EPP cannot form a majority in the European Parliament. Both would need the support of either the Greens or ALDE. But support for active climate change measures is likely to be strong among these groups. If the Parliament is sufficiently fractured such that other measures could be blocked, finding some issues on which there is an over-lapping consensus provides a way forward.

Fifthly, the policy gives the right sort of jobs for many workers who might otherwise be left behind by the globalised economy. Consider, for example, energy efficiency in buildings. At present buildings are responsible for some 40% of energy use, but some three-quarters of them have low energy efficiency standards. Modernising and upgrading those buildings requires a range of workers from the highly skilled to the low skilled typically at a local level. To the extent to which populist movements thrive on the ‘left behind’, a serious programme of energy efficiency in buildings would provide new jobs and local opportunities for those otherwise tempted to vote nationalist.

Sixthly, not only is achieving greater energy efficiency a public good in itself, but it also contributes to the public good of greater energy security, helping to detach Europe from its dependence of Russian energy supplies.

Finally, the zero-carbon challenge underlines how far a system of multi-level governance is required for implementation. Agreement at an EU level is required in order to prevent possible free riding and to provide the policy and regulatory context within which tangible action plans can be developed at the national, regional and local levels. But the precise priorities often need to be determined at local levels, in programmes of energy efficiency for buildings, improved public transport and training of workers. One advantage of this is that scope exists for experimentation and mutual learning from local authorities.

So here is an issue where the UK could make a serious and valuable contribution to Europe, and through Europe to the world. If only the siren voices that intone ‘global Britain’ had not seduced our government, the UK could have played to its strengths in the EU. Sometimes irony is a cause for a worldly wise shrug of the shoulders; on this occasion it is tragic.

Albert Weale is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory and Public Policy at UCL. He is the author of The New Politics of Pollution (Manchester University Press, 1992) and, with others, Environmental Governance in Europe (Oxford University Press, 2001).

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

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