Brexit Threatens to Pollute EU Plan for National Climate Goals

  • EU Commission to unveil 2030 targets for 28 nations on July 20
  • U.K. will participate in negotiations on draft climate law

The U.K. vote to leave the European Union risks stoking a bitter fight among EU governments over sharing the burden of pollution cuts in the transport, farm and building industries, potentially weakening the bloc’s leadership in the battle against climate change.

QuickTake Climate Change

The European Commission, the EU’s regulatory arm in Brussels, is due on July 20 to propose varying emission-reduction goals for individual member countries so the 28-nation bloc can reach its headline targets for trimming discharges blamed for causing more frequent heat waves, storms and floods.

The draft law will apply to industries that are outside Europe’s emissions-trading market and that must reduce greenhouse-gas discharges by a total of 30 percent in 2030 compared with 2005 levels. While some nations will be pressed to slash their discharges by 40 percent, others will be asked only to stabilize emissions. The U.K. faces a cut of around 35 percent.

“When it comes to the political negotiations among member states, there will be a lot of uncertainty,” said Annika Hedberg, a senior analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels. “It comes down a lot to the leadership in Britain. What kind of a player will they be in Brussels? Will they be abstaining? Will they be opposing?”

Political Shock Waves

Last month’s U.K. vote to leave the EU caused political shock waves that are penetrating deep into the bloc’s institutions, rattling the decision-making machinery and clouding the outlook for a range of policies including climate protection. The turbulence could end up watering down Europe’s emissions-reduction target for the next decade because the remaining EU nations may balk at boosting their effort to compensate for Brexit.

With EU environment ministers planning to tackle the forthcoming commission proposal later this year, the targets for 2030 would be so politically sensitive that they’d also need a nod from heads of government. The U.K. will take part in the negotiations and be required to take on new climate commitments until any secession talks with the EU are completed.

Once the EU shrinks, the remaining member states would need either to step up their ambition to uphold Europe’s headline goal of cutting emissions at least 40 percent by 2030 from 1990 levels or to loosen that target, risking international criticism.

Brexit Impact

The commission declined to speculate about the possible impact of Brexit on EU policies before the U.K. government triggers the secession process. Such a step will be taken by a new British leader, Prime Minister David Cameron said last month when announcing his resignation.

“The British people decided they want to leave the European Union and we now expect a formal notification to that effect,” commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said on June 30. “All the rest will follow.”

The 40 percent goal is Europe’s contribution to a global climate treaty reached in Paris last year by almost 200 nations. European leaders agreed in 2014 to distribute the burden on the basis of gross domestic product per capita.

After Brexit, the U.K. would have to declare its own national goal. Any resulting weaker EU target would undermine the bloc’s ambition to lead the fight against global warming.

The U.K.’s 2030 greenhouse-gas target for sectors outside the market may be around 35 percent below 2005 levels, deeper than a 16 percent goal for 2020, according to the Oeko-Institut in Freiburg, Germany.

Toughest Target

The toughest target of 40 percent will probably be assigned to Sweden, Denmark and Luxembourg, according to Oeko. Bulgaria, the poorest EU country, is likely to be obliged to keep its emissions unchanged compared with 2005 levels. Germany’s goal would be 36 percent, while Poland would need to cut by 8 percent.

All this is stricter than the previous EU climate pact for 2020 in which poorer nations were allowed to grow emissions by between 1 percent and 20 percent. Another novelty is that the draft legislation will take account of forests, which are treated as “sinks” that absorb greenhouse gases.

“Betting on planting trees to reduce emissions is risky because the carbon sink of forests fluctuates and the permanence of stored carbon cannot be guaranteed,” said Femke de Jong, EU policy director at Carbon Market Watch in Brussels.

Another tool to adjust national targets for the next decade will be a link to the EU emissions-trading system, which imposes quotas on polluting businesses and forces those that exceed their caps to buy permits from businesses that emit less. Several member states with the most stringent non-ETS targets would be eligible to use a limited number of allowances from the oversupplied emissions market to comply with their goals.

The commission may also propose an intra-EU trading mechanism under which a country could buy non-ETS offset credits from a project that cuts pollution in another European nation.

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