Will the Environmental Audit Committee Report at last bring the environment onto the referendum campaign agenda?

by Dr. Charlotte Burns, University of York

As the remain and leave sides launch their campaigns in the run up to the 23rd June referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, the environment may at last emerge as an issue, with the publication of the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) report on the EU and UK environmental policy. Although this is the third report to be published since March reviewing the implications of the referendum for the UK’s environment, neither the remain nor leave groups has yet engaged with the issue in a significant way. The recent government leaflet explaining why the country should vote to remain in the EU makes only one passing mention of climate change and none of wider environmental policy. The Prime Minister’s reform mandate was also notably quiet on the subject. This silence is somewhat surprising given the widespread acceptance amongst experts that the EU has had a significant impact upon the UK environment. The UK was known as the ‘Dirty man of Europe’ in the 1970s and 1980s and the EU is widely credited with helping the clean up the national environment. Leading think-tank, the Institute for European Environmental Policy argued in its report in March that the EU has been good for the UK’s environment and expressed concern over the prospects for habitats and birds in the event of a ‘brexit’.  I have been working with a group of independent experts, funded by the UK in Changing Europe initiative and our report suggests that on balance EU membership has been beneficial for the UK’s environment. The EAC report published today is similarly positive.

There are several key areas of agreement across the reports. First, environmental policy benefits from transnational governance arrangements: pollution does not respect national borders and therefore mitigation of environmental problems requires cooperation across and between states. The EU provides a vehicle for such cooperation. Second, dealing with environmental issues requires clear targets and deadlines. A key impact of the EU upon the UK has been the requirement for clear policies with strong enforcement mechanisms, which UK citizens can rely upon. For example, the UK government is currently facing legal action over failing to meet air quality standards. EU policy also provides a degree of long term stability, and a more certain investment climate for the kinds infrastructural development required to, for example, make the transition to a low-carbon economy  or to secure better water quality via projects such as the Thames Tideway tunnel.

However, it is important to note that not everyone agrees with these findings. One member of the EAC, Peter Lilley, a leading Eurosceptic, insisted that a dissenting report expressing his views be appended to the main document. The calls from the Conservative backbenches for a bonfire of red tape have often had EU environmental regulations in their sights, and a recent Economist blog  suggests climate scepticism often goes hand-in-hand with euro-scepticism.   It seems unlikely then that any of these reports is going to change the mind of hardened eurosceptics. However, for those who are more uncertain about their voting intentions the findings of the EAC and other reports may provide food for thought.

The report in which I have been involved outlines three scenarios following the referendum: a vote to remain in a ‘reformed EU’; a vote to leave followed by joining the European Economic Area (EEA), the so-called ‘Norwegian option’; and a vote to leave the EU and develop a free trade agreement of some kind, the ‘free trade option’.  In the first two of these options the UK government will continue to be subject to EU standards in most areas and subject to enforcement proceedings. However, in the third ‘free trade’ case, whilst the Government is still likely to be subject to product rules in order to access the single European market, it will enjoy more freedom to reform existing environmental rules than it does currently as an EU member, where it can strengthen those rules, but cannot weaken them.  There is a shared pessimism amongst experts about the likely attitude of the UK government towards environmental protection under these circumstances. There appears to be a broadly cynical view that the UK government, regardless of its ideological composition, is unlikely to maintain the same level of protection or funding for the environment as that provided currently thanks to EU membership. We can only hope that the publication of the EAC report will force more explicit discussion of these issues by the campaigns with some detailed outlines of what a vote to remain or leave will mean for the UK’s environment.

Dr. Charlotte Burns is a Senior Lecturer in Environmental Politics and Policy in the Environment Department at the University of York. She submitted evidence to EAC, is the co-author of The EU Referendum and the UK Environment: An Expert Review, and is the author of FoE Report, The Implications for UK Environmental Policy of a Vote to Exit the EU.

From Hedegaard to Cañete: Still a Coherent EU Voice on Climate Change?

When Jean-Claude Juncker’s new European Commission took office on November 1, 2014, the way that the EU’s executive deals with climate change underwent a potentially significant reorganization. Under the previous Barroso Commission (2009-2014), European Commissioner Connie Hedegaard – a well-respected figure in international environmental politics – presided over the Directorate-General for Climate Action (DG Clima). In contrast, in the Juncker Commission, Climate Action & Energy Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañetewhose lack of environmental credentials as a former oil manager has been the subject of intense debate – now leads both DG Clima and DG Energy. In addition, Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, who has been appointed Vice-President for Energy Union, is in charge of “…coordinating the Commission’s efforts to ensure the EU reaches its climate and energy targets for 2020 and 2030.” What do these changes mean for the European Union’s (EU) climate change policy, and what can we expect from the EU in the upcoming international climate negotiations in Lima in December 2014 and the crucial Paris summit in 2015?


Leading the way? EU Climate Change Policy to 2030

There are arguably three important factors that have mattered greatly as the EU has endeavored to lead the world on climate change: high-level political support, internal coordination and coherent external policy positions. Historically, the first fifteen years of the 21st century can be understood as an effort by the European Commission – in conjunction with other actors – to progress in all three areas. In the mid-to-late 2000s, high-level political leadership on climate change slowly built within the Commission. Particularly in light of Russia’s decision to interrupt gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006 and ensuing calls in Europe for energy independence, as well as evidence that the EU was not going to meet its Kyoto targets with existing measures as reported in 2004, then-Commission President Barroso ramped up his rhetoric on climate change,[1] which some have described as a ‘sea change’ of leadership[2]. This new approach is perhaps best exemplified by Barroso’s statement in 2007 that “We can say to the rest of the world, Europe is taking the lead, you should join us in fighting climate change”.

The EU also went through several phases of making its internal climate policies more coherent. Although at first challenging, the EU eventually managed to hammer out an internal ‘burden sharing’ agreement between 1997 and 1998 in order to distribute EU emissions reductions among its (then 15) member states.[3] In 2003, the EU institutions agreed to create the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), which began operation in 2005. And in December 2008, the EU finalized the 2020 Climate and Energy Package, which among other things, committed the Union as a whole to a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, as well as a 20% share of renewable energy and a 20% reduction in energy use. However, despite relatively productive climate policy making in the 2000s, the EU ultimately found itself sidelined at the crucial Copenhagen climate negotiations in December 2009.

The EU’s sobering experience at the Copenhagen summit suggested that ongoing EU climate policy-making did not necessarily translate into strong influence in international negotiations. Reflecting on the summit’s failure, Connie Hedegaard identified the EU’s lack of coherence as one of the key reasons why the EU was sidelined: because European nations were not “sing[ing] from [the] same hymn sheet”. This rationale for more external coordination provided a strong reason for President Barroso to create DG Clima in 2010 and to appoint a dedicated climate change commissioner to put a face behind EU climate change policy. Crucially, former Commissioner Hedegaard has argued that this new setup allowed her to focus attention on her negotiating role. In sum, by and large, the first fifteen years of the 21st century can be understood as a move towards more high-level leadership, as well as internal and external policy coordination, with the European Commission in an increasingly important role.


Have recent developments continued this trend toward increased clarity and coherence?

At least rhetorically, President Juncker has sought to show political continuity on climate change by declaring in a July 2014 speech to the European Parliament that “I want the European Union to lead the fight against global warming ahead of the United Nations Paris meeting in 2015 and beyond. We owe this to future generations.” It is noteworthy how these words mirror Barroso’s language in 2007. In addition, the Juncker Commission has been supportive of the 2030 Framework on Climate and Energy Proposal, which it inherited from the Barroso Commission. Crucially, recent Council Conclusions on the subject state that the distribution of effort will be built on the methodology used under the 2020 framework. However, in contrast to Barroso, Juncker has arguably spread and potentially blurred responsibility for climate change within his new Commmission – particularly from the viewpoint of non-EU countries who may be wondering who will be their go-to person on climate change. Under the new ‘layered’ Commission structure, Vice-President (VP) Šefčovič and Commissioner Cañete are both directly involved in climate change policy, VP Mogherini has argued that climate change is a key EU external policy, and VP Timmermans is now in charge of sustainability. This new structure therefore risks losing the unitary voice that was one benefit of the previous organization under Barroso.

There is some evidence that international discussions on who speaks for EU climate policy have flared up again. Media reports, US lead negotiator Todd Stern, and Commissioner Cañete himself have said that Cañete will lead the EU delegation based on a negotiating mandate agreed by the European Council on October 24. However, it is not clear who will be leading negotiations in Paris, or what the exact division of climate responsibilities will be.



With the Lima climate negotiations just a few days away, the new European Commission will face a serious test – will it be able to coherently represent the EU’s position on climate change in international settings? Or will the question of “who speaks for Europe” be on the table once again? The stakes are especially high this time around. When Connie Hedegaard assumed office as head of DG Clima in February 2010, it was in the wake of the near-collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. Although DG Clima was a new organization, having been separated from DG Environment, there was an eleven-month window until the next climate negotiations in Cancun, where expectations were certainly lower than those at Copenhagen. In contrast, the new climate leadership in 2014 is faced with December 1 negotiations in Lima, Peru that come only one month after the Commission took office. In addition, the high-stakes 2015 summit in Paris is a year away and will draw considerable international attention. As things stand at the moment, it is unclear how the new ‘layered’ Commission will fare in this crucial year for global climate change policy.

[1] Jordan, A., Huitema, D., van Asselt, H., Rayner, T., & Berkhout, F. (Eds.). (2010). Climate change policy in the European Union: confronting the dilemmas of mitigation and adaptation? Cambridge University Press, p. 71-73. [2] Wurzel, R., & Connelly, J. (2011). The European Union as a leader in international climate change politics. London: Routledge, p. 49-50. [3] Jordan, A., Huitema, D., van Asselt, H., Rayner, T., & Berkhout, F. (Eds.). (2010). Climate change policy in the European Union: confronting the dilemmas of mitigation and adaptation? Cambridge University Press, pp. 85-87.

By Jonas Schoenefeld, Brendan Moore and Viviane Gravey, University of East Anglia

Jonas Schoenefeld (BA, Middlebury College; MPhil, Oxford) is a PhD candidate at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, where he focuses on climate change policy in the European Union. Brendan Moore is a PhD researcher at the University of East Anglia’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Research. His research focuses on the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) and its political effects on European climate change policy. Viviane Gravey is a PhD researcher at the University of East Anglia and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Norwich (UK). Her current research concerns EU environmental policies, and the direction of policy change (policy dismantling etc.).

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not designed to reflect the position of the PSA Specialist Group on Environmental Politics.  The Group encourages thoughtful and respectful reflection on the content in the comments section of the post.*