Brexiteers face climate change dilemma

by Luke Lythgoe | 22.04.2016

Many Brexiteers won’t be pleased that 150 countries will be in New York today to sign the UN’s Paris climate deal.

Some Leave campaigners are climate change sceptics. UKIP’s 2015 election manifesto proposed scrapping the 2008 Climate Change Act, which commits Britain to cut carbon emissions. Nigel Lawson launched his own climate change think tank in 2009.

Other members of the Leave camp, including Vote Leave and the Tory Fresh Start group, blame EU environmental law for high energy prices. They are particularly critical of the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and target for 20% of energy to be generated by renewables by 2020.

If the Leave camp wants to make a big dent on energy prices after Brexit, it would have to scrap a lot of climate change legislation. But that would be economically and politically damaging.

For a start, a bonfire of our commitments to help stop global warming would put an end to any hope of staying in the EU’s single market. Even Norway, which is not in the EU, has to adopt the ETS, the carbon emissions targets and the renewables goals.

Simply falling back on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules would mean the UK would no longer be bound by EU environmental laws. But if we actually junked our own Climate Change Act and started using dirty electricity, the EU could retaliate by increasing tariffs on British exports or even banning our goods. So could other countries.

There are precedents for the WTO allowing tariffs when processes or production methods contradict environmental policies. Tariffs could also be justified if other countries concluded the use of dirtier energy was giving our industry an unfair competitive edge.

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If the Brexiteers also decided to cut subsidies for green industries, that would end current hopes of Britain becoming a global leader in green energy technology – for instance our pioneering of new tidal power. As the world weans itself off fossil fuels, we’d become an importer rather than exporter of green tech and expertise.

Meanwhile, reducing or ditching  the commitments we made at last year’s Paris climate change summit would make Britain an environmental pariah. Given the importance that other countries attach to slowing down global warming, they might retaliate in any of a number of ways that made our life uncomfortable.

A plan to scrap climate change laws might not go down well with the British public either.  Government surveys reveal public support for renewables hovers around 78%. Maybe this is why the Leave camp has not come clean on whether it wants to roll back the legislation or not. But if it’s not prepared to say this is what it wants, it cannot honestly claim it is going to slash people’s energy bills either.

Edited by Hugo Dixon