But the bigger problem, advocates say, is how this affects the E.U., which, when taken as a whole, is the third largest global greenhouse-gas emitter.
One oft-voiced concern is that the departure of Britain — which has been a climate leader within the bloc — could weaken the E.U.’s climate ambitions, on top of the general chaos expected to ensue as Brexit now unfolds (which will surely distract all parties from climate policy).
“The UK has generally argued for stronger action on emissions within the EU, so its absence will make it more difficult to counter the arguments of those Member States, such as Poland, which want slower and weaker cuts in emissions,” said Bob Ward, policy and communications director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
And then there’s the added complexity and uncertainty that now arises when it comes to determining how the E.U. will meet its ambitious climate targets and orchestrate the complex dance it must undertake to formally join the Paris climate agreement, said Andy Jordan, a professor at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in England.
The E.U. has adopted a formal pledge to the United Nations to cut its member states’ emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2030, “to be fulfilled jointly.” Jordan explained that this means there is an “internal burden sharing” process that among the member states that will have to happen to ensure these reductions.
But with Britain’s pending departure, it’s not clear how this is going to work. In one scenario, Britain will become a nation like Norway, which is not an E.U. member state but is part of the European Economic Area. In its own recent pledge to the U.N. to cut its emissions, Norway adopted the same goal as the EU and said it intends to fulfill “this commitment through a collective delivery with the EU and its Member States. In the event that there is no agreement on a collective delivery with the EU, Norway” will fulfill the commitment individually.
“The ambition level will remain the same in this event,” it continued.
But Britain could also wind up in a more distant “free trade” relationship, which could affect the divvying up of greenhouse-gas-reduction responsibility.
“We don’t know how long the exit process is going to take, and secondly, whether that would end up with the UK still in the single market, like Norway, and therefore still within the burden sharing agreement, or completely outside the EU as a separate state, and therefore, would submit its own [climate pledge],” Jordan said. “And in fact, it could take years until that’s clear.”
“UK will not now take part in the sharing out of the EU 2030 target contained in the EU [pledge], and Brexit will likely make it more difficult for the EU to achieve that target as UK has been cutting its emissions by more than the EU average,” Ward said by email.
Closely related but similarly unclear is how the E.U. and Britain will now join the Paris climate agreement, which does not come into force until 55 countries, representing 55 percent of global emissions, fully join. For the E.U., that was always going to be a complex process, with each member state having to individually go through its own process before the E.U. as a whole can join.
It’s not immediately clear how Brexit influences or changes this. Christiana Figueres, the outgoing executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, was quoted recently about Brexit as follows: “From the point of view of the Paris agreement, the U.K. is part of the EU and has put in its effort as part of the EU, so anything that would change that would require then a recalibration.” But it is not clear exactly what this “recalibration” entails.
To give some sense of the complexity of the process, consider an explanation, by the World Resources Institute, of how the whole E.U.-joining-Paris process was supposed to work — before Brexit.
“In addition to each individual member state completing their domestic approval processes, the Council of Ministers, with the consent of the European Parliament, will also need to adopt a decision to ratify,” the group notes. “This could take a couple of years to ensure the necessary effort sharing agreements are in place between the EU member states.”
However, the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Director David Waskow said he thinks this is more of a temporary hurdle rather than a deep problem.
“Obviously it’s important at the end of the day to have the E.U. fully on board in the international climate process, and I think they’ll stay there,” Waskow said. “You still have Germany and France and others who are very determined to press forward. This is going to add additional complications, no question, but much of that momentum is already in progress.”
But hey, at least there’s one rather paradoxical (and, frankly, sad) potential upside for international climate policy. As Ed King of Climate Home noted, as an expected British economic downturn caused by the Brexit kicks in, “the resulting economic slump could lead to a fall in greenhouse gas emissions.” Roaring economies generally produce considerably more greenhouse gases than slowing ones.
So even as Britain’s departure throws international climate policy into turmoil, it might slightly lessen global emissions.