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Brexit makes it harder to dole out EU climate burden

Dave KeatingJuly 20, 2016

The European Union today announced which European countries will have to do what to meet the bloc's emissions reduction commitment. But the whole proposal will have to be torn up upon a UK exit from the bloc.

Frankreich Cop21 Klimagipfel in Paris Demonstranten
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/T. Camus

The European Union may have made a single carbon emissions reduction target at the UN climate summit in Paris last year, but given the wide gaps in economic conditions within the bloc, each EU country will not have to carry the same share of the burden.

The European Commission today set out how the bloc's commitment to a 40 percent reduction from 1990 levels will be delivered by 2030. Wealthy countries such as Germany, Sweden, France and the UK will have to deliver large reductions. Countries like Poland, Romania and Hungary will have to deliver less. Bulgaria will not have to deliver any reduction at all.

Today's publication date for the so-called 'burden-sharing decision' was set months ago, but the Commission almost decided to delay it after the British public voted in a referendum on June 23 to leave the EU.

As a wealthy country, the UK was expected to make a substantial contribution to the EU's carbon reduction. But Brexit raised a question over whether to remove the country from the EU's climate efforts and increase the burden on the remaining 27 countries.

In the end, the Commission decided to go ahead with the publication, leaving the UK with its share of emission cuts and assuming no Brexit before 2030. But if the UK leaves, the entire allocation strategy will need to be revised.

Miguel Arias Canete Brussels, Belgium, 16 February 2016. EPA/LAURENT DUBRULE +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++ Copyright: picture-alliance/dpa/L. Dubrule
EU Climate Commissioner Miguel Arias Canete says the EU needs to continue with business as usual despite BrexitImage: picture-alliance/dpa/L. Dubrule

"The UK remains a member state"

Asked how the remaining 27 EU countries were supposed to take today's allocation seriously given the UK government's plans for Brexit, EU climate chief Manuel Arias Canete said the Commission cannot stop all climate work while it waits for the UK to make up its mind.

"Let's be very clear, from a legal point of view, the outcome of the referendum has not changed anything," he said at a press conference. "The UK remains a member state, with all the rights and obligations. EU law continues to apply to the UK. So the proposal is made in light of the present circumstances."

But given that the UK is slated to be the seventh-largest contributor, its exit will mean the remaining 27 countries will have to meet higher targets. Under UN rules, the EU is not allowed to revise down its Paris commitment in light of Brexit.

"If the UK leaves, their share will have to be compensated by others - mostly by those in the middle range," Wendel Trio, the director of Climate Action Network Europe, told DW. "Italy, Spain and Portugal will have to do more."

Once the UK leaves the EU, it will no longer be bound by the Paris Agreement. It would need to sign a new bilateral emissions reduction pledge with the UN, separate from the EU.

Theresa May, the UK's new prime minister who took power on July 13, alarmed climate activists when one of her first moves in was to abolish the country's Department of Energy and Climate Change, moving climate issues under the purview of the business ministry.

Stephen Devlin, an environmental economist at the New Economics Foundation, said the decision "signals a troubling de-prioritization of climate change by this government."

An Indian factory. DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)
The EU will likely meet its 2020 target because of the economic slowdown, but 2030 will be harderImage: Getty Images/AFP/D. Sarkar

New flexibility

Even without the uncertainty created by Brexit, there are concerns that the targets set today are already too high for some countries. Canete insisted that the allocations were "balanced and fair". But there is some resentment among Europe's poorer countries that the wealthy member states refused to accept burdens any higher than 40 percent, meaning poorer countries must contribute more than they have in the past.

The burden-sharing unveiled today applies to yearly emissions reduction obligations from 2020 to 2030. The allocations for meeting the bloc's 2020 target of a 20 percent reduction have been in place for some time and are unlikely to be affected by Brexit, which would come in 2019 at the earliest. The EU is expected to surpass its 2020 target because of the slowdown in industrial activity caused by the economic crisis.

Largely because of Europe's experience of the crisis, and due to continued geopolitical uncertainty, the EU will give national governments flexibility in meeting their targets this time around. This is particularly aimed at poorer countries.

The EU's 40 percent emissions reduction is split unevenly between economic sectors. Some sectors such as manufacturing, power generation and industry, are being regulated by the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), and have to reduce emissions by 43 percent by 2030.

The remaining sectors not covered by the ETS (transport, agriculture and buildings) have an overall reduction target of 40 percent. The burden-sharing allocation only applies to these non-ETS sectors, since the other sectors are to lower emissions through the market-based mechanism.

Under the new flexibility regime introduced today, countries struggling to meet their national targets for the non-ETS sectors can use excess allowances from the ETS to lower their non-ETS burdens. They can also lower their burdens by implementing other green policies.

Deutschland Strommast und Windkraft
Richer countries will be under greater pressure to switch to cleaner sources of energyImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

This has infuriated environmental campaigners. Marc-Olivier Herman, a campaigner with Oxfam, said the flexibilities may result in the EU failing to meet its Paris commitment.

"Through newly proposed flexibilities countries will be able claim carbon credits by planting trees and from dubious accounting of their forest management instead of insulating homes and investing in more sustainable agriculture and transport," he said. "The EU cannot continue to claim climate leadership if it cooks the books."

Middling countries to pick up the slack

The allocations range from 40 percent for Sweden to 0 percent for Bulgaria. It was deemed that it would be difficult enough just for Bulgaria to halt its emissions growth. Romania, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Croatia, and Poland all have allocations below 10 percent. The UK has an allocation of 37 percent.

In the event of Brexit, the difference would most likely have to be made up by countries in the middle such as Italy (33 percent), Spain (26 percent) and Ireland (30 percent).

Canete would not say at what point the Brexit talks would be far enough along to revise the allocations to account for the loss of the UK. Trio says an opportune time to do so would be when all the global Paris Accord signatories return to the table in 2018 to revisit their pledges, with an eye to possibly revising them up.

They cannot revise the targets down.