scorecardresearch Skip to main content
Opinion | Guy Edwards

Brexit could torpedo climate cooperation

British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (R) and British Environment Secretary Liz Truss addressed what would happen if Britain leaves the European Union on April 18, 2016. MATT CARDY/AFP/Getty Images

Anyone concerned about climate change should also be concerned about the future of the European Union. In particular, next month’s referendum on whether Britain should remain part of the European Union or leave — the so-called Brexit.

The Brexit debate is dominated by issues like trade, security, and immigration. But there are far larger issues at stake. The European Union is strengthened by Britain’s leadership on climate issues, while the British need their EU partners to try to help slow its own backsliding on its domestic low-carbon policies, including support for renewables and zero carbon homes.

America isn’t known for its humility. Yet on a recent visit to Britain, President Obama was unambiguous in his praise for an EU “fortified” by the United Kingdom, which helped secure the Paris Agreement on climate change. Without the European Union acting as one of the agreement’s chief architects well before the final negotiation last December, it probably wouldn’t have happened.

But a severe weakening of the European Union could also torpedo the fragile consensus around this planetary-sized challenge.


The Paris Agreement offers the best chance in a generation to build a more secure, cleaner, and resilient future. It strengthens the goal to limit the global temperature rise to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees. For small island states threatened by sea level rise, the agreement offers their last chance for survival. For the rest of the world, the implementation of the agreement can help protect our communities and the ecosystems on which we all depend.

Its goal to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emission this century requires the phasing out of fossil fuels by 2050 with a massive shift to renewable energy. The agreement sends a clear message to politicians and investors that the transition is underway. In 2015, investment in renewables broke records with twice as much global funding as fossil fuels. The International Renewable Energy Agency says renewable generation capacity increased by 152 gigawatts or 8.3 percent during 2015, the highest annual growth rate on record. In Europe it grew by 24 gigawatts or 5.2 percent.


Much of the enthusiasm behind renewables as a central piece of the response to global warming originated in Europe. The EU’s 2020 climate and energy package adopted in 2008 includes a target of achieving 20 percent of all its energy from renewable sources by 2020. It represents one of the drivers behind Europe’s low-carbon sector which created thousands of green jobs across the continent. In 2008, the United Kingdom was also the first nation to adopt a legally-binding Climate Change Act, which established a target to reduce UK emissions by at least 80 percent by 2050 compared to 1990 levels.

Yet Britain is struggling. Existing low-carbon policies are inadequate to meet some of the goals established by its landmark climate legislation. This law would remain in force under Brexit but the political will to implement it could evaporate further. The UK Minister for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd has already admitted that Britain is not on track to meet its EU target of sourcing 15 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020.

The United Kingdom risks being removed from discussions on the design of a new Energy Union, which could provide a boon for renewables. The Energy Union would allow energy to flow freely across borders with the aim of making it more secure, cleaner, and affordable. Greater interconnection within the European Union could ensure a more reliable and secure supply given the intermittencies in generation from wind and solar.


The United Kingdom has pushed hard to increase EU emission reduction targets while using the bloc’s global heft to bolster its own diplomacy to encourage greater action from big polluters, including India and Brazil. Prior to the Paris climate talks in 2015, Britain successfully pushed for an EU goal to reduce emissions by at least 40 percent by 2030 over weaker alternatives.

A British exit would undermine Europe’s ability to lead. The United Kingdom is scheduled to take over the presidency of the EU Council in 2017. The timing is significant given the decision last month of 177 countries to sign the Paris Agreement and start their own domestic processes to join the agreement and support its timely entry into force.

Within the European Union, the United Kingdom can pressure its partners to bring the European Union’s new energy and climate legislation to be agreed soon into line with the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious goals and lobby for quick ratification. The Brits could continue to capitalize on the European Union’s diplomatic clout to put the climate agenda at the heart of international development finance to support developing nations meet their own emission reduction goals.


Brexit would prove a major distraction for the European Union with a protracted and likely bitter negotiation between Britain and its erstwhile partners that would likely have negative consequences for the EU ratification process and ratcheting up of targets.

Britain’s EU membership can accelerate European action on climate change while providing a counterweight to the United Kingdom’s penchant for dismantling domestic climate policies. Having demonstrated the power of diplomacy, the United Kingdom and its EU partners can continue to lead. This continuity can support bringing online the Paris Agreement and the transition toward a more secure, resilient and cleaner global economy. Achieving global prosperity especially for the most vulnerable and poorest depends in large measure on whether the Paris Agreement succeeds or not. Brexit would make realizing that goal significantly tougher.

Guy Edwards is a co-director of the Climate and Development Lab at Brown University.