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Sink or swim.. UK’s choice in fight for our planet

Rising Tide: Polar bears have become the emblem in the fight against climate change. Joe Bunni/ Getty - Credit: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The threat from climate change is as immediate as that from Brexit and the two problems must be tackled together.

The warnings in a UN report that the world has just 12 years left to avert a global climate catastrophe will have, to many, put Brexit into perspective. Why, some asked, are we fretting about the detail of the deal to be struck with the EU when there is a bigger picture, a more alarming crisis to worry about? Does it really matter exactly where border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland will be carried out, or whether our new deal is closer to Norway or Canada when, in half a generation, our planet could reach a tipping point triggering rising seas and mass heat-related deaths?

It is certainly true that the warnings in the IPCC report are serious and frightening, and should shock governments and individuals alike into taking action. For too long, the ‘event horizon’ on a climate change disaster has been cast too far into the future, and the target of limiting global temperature rises to 2C above pre-industrial levels has been too lax. Some experts and negotiators have been pushing for that target to be a firmer 1.5C, and the IPCC does just that. The report should sharpen the focus of all of us. Allowing temperatures to rise beyond 1.5C will worsen the risk of flooding, drought, the death of coral and extreme poverty for millions.

Yet to pit one problem, climate change, against another, Brexit, is the wrong way to frame the argument. There is an even bigger picture: Brexit and climate change, and how the UK responds to both challenges, are linked.

It would be wrong, of course, to say that the difference between a no-deal Brexit and the Chequers plan is going to have a direct impact on the coral reefs of the Pacific. But the UK has been – until now, at least – a major player in the fight against climate change, able to influence policy at summits as a key member of the EU. After the IPCC report was published in South Korea on Monday, the British government reiterated its commitment to meeting its carbon emissions targets despite Brexit.

Ministers insisted that after the UK leaves the EU next March, the country will continue its obligations under the Paris Agreement, which sets targets for individual countries to cut greenhouse gases from 2020. However, Brexit is going to make the UK’s job in meeting those targets all the harder, because roughly 55% of the country’s carbon emission reductions are tied to EU regulations. Enforcing those commitments will be weakened after Brexit.

As talks on Brexit reach the most critical stage next week, and Theresa May holds fast to her ultimatum on Chequers versus no-deal, the latter scenario becomes more plausible by the day. A no-deal will have serious implications in all sectors, but, specifically on the environment, it should be of huge concern.

Greener UK, the coalition of environmental groups, published a report in July setting out how a no-deal would affect the environment, food security and pollution, and their analysis on climate change was stark: ‘Leaving the EU without a deal would make it harder for the UK to meet its emissions reduction targets in the long term, increase energy bills for consumers and undermine investment in critical energy infrastructure,’ the report said.

A no-deal Brexit would mean the UK cutting loose from the European Court of Justice and, in turn, ending participation in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Greener UK says this would cause ‘significant disruption to business and a loss of more than £530 million in auction revenues for the UK government’. A no-deal could lead to a drop in the carbon price, because operators will sell allowances as March 2019 nears, the report said, and a sudden departure from the ETS would ‘disrupt action to meet the UK’s domestic carbon target, potentially undermining domestic ambition on climate change’.

It would also see the UK leaving the internal energy market, meaning consumer energy bills would increase due to charges added to cross-border electricity trading.

Even if the negotiations result in a deal, there are still ramifications. The Greener UK report cites research by National Grid that leaving the internal energy market could cost the UK £500m – even if there were a deal on Brexit. With the detail of a Brexit deal still to be hammered out, it is unclear whether the UK will stay in the ETS. But departure from the ECJ, a totemic demand of Brexiteers, will see the creation of a new environmental watchdog, which, say campaigners, will weaken enforcement on meeting climate change targets.

As Rachel Kennerley, climate campaigner at Friends of the Earth says: ‘The science is irrefutable – the UK has to do all it can to cut climate changing emissions as soon and as deeply as possible if we want to keep our planet liveable.

‘So it’s worrying that we’re losing ways to hold our government to account on climate when we leave the EU. In or out of Europe, the UK government needs to step up and make its fair share of emissions cuts.’

Campaigners also warn that leaving the EU will lessen the UK’s influence in global climate talks, because the country will no longer be members of a bloc with clout on negotiating new agreements. What’s more, as the UK turns towards the result of the world for trade deals, it will become more reliant on countries like the US, which has pulled out of the Paris Agreement, as a consequence of Donald Trump’s protectionist agenda.

Regardless of Brexit, the government’s approach to the environment is glaringly inconsistent. Last month, the prime minister opened the world’s first zero emission vehicle summit in Birmingham. In a speech, she pledged that the UK would ‘lead from the front’ on the development of green vehicles by committing to all new cars and vans to be zero emission by 2040, with the help of £106m from the government. Cutting fuel emissions from vehicles will go a huge way to meeting Britain’s commitment under the Paris accord, yet as laudable as May’s pledge was, 2040 is a woefully distant deadline – particularly given the IPCC’s warning that the world has to act before 2030 before the tipping point is reached. Environment secretary Michael Gove has helped ensure cutting back on plastic has soared to the top of the government’s priorities, and that has already made a difference to the way households regard single use plastic straws and coffee cups, which in turn will reduce pollution in the world’s oceans.

Yet this war on plastic from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs jars with the announcement by the prime minister at the Conservative conference last week that the government will keep in place the freeze on fuel duty, despite suggestions last month by the chancellor, Philip Hammond, that it would be scrapped in the Budget later this month. An increase in the cost of fuel would have encouraged some drivers to switch to more environmentally-friendly forms of transport, which would help cut emissions.

If there is a major lesson from the IPCC report this week, it is that individuals, as well as governments, can make changes to the way we live to help keep the rise in global temperatures in check. But behavioural responses by consumers need to be helped, not inhibited, by government policy – and the fuel duty freeze undermines that.

What the IPCC report makes clear is that climate change is no longer only a threat for our grandchildren, but an imminent danger that needs urgent action. It does not mean we should put aside fears over Brexit in place of the greater fear of climate catastrophe, but it underlines how Brexit is not a process happening in isolation: it is linked to all sectors and industries, and all aspects of our daily lives. A climate change tipping point can be avoided if we all take action now. It is just a pity that Brexit is likely to hamper that fight.

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