Tuesday, 31 May 2016

How will the EU referendum affect our response to climate change?

Here in the UK, March 2016 broke climate change records – those records had been set in February 2016!  2015 was the warmest year on record; most of the 10 warmest years have been in the last decade. On the other side of the globe, 11,000 miles away in Tasmania is an observatory which records greenhouse and ozone-depleting gases in an uncontaminated, ‘clean air’ location. The journal Science published on May 20th includes a news briefing titled ‘Atmospheric CO2 reaches a milestone’ and reports “Last week, carbon dioxide .. levels at Cape Grim, an observatory on Tasmania in Australia rose above 400 parts per million (ppm)  …”. Elaborating on the significance of this fact, the short article explains that because of the nature of seasonal variations in CO2 levels in the northern hemisphere, the record of 400 ppm CO2 at Cape Grim, is a more accurate reflection of global atmospheric CO2 levels.

Climate change is well underway; records are tumbling quicker than predicted under most climate models. This is partly due to natural variation but scientists agree that the over-riding cause is human activity. The significance of the 400 ppm CO2 figure is that it shows we’re closing on the point at which a global average 2oC temperature rise is inevitable (that threshold is estimated at 450 ppm CO2), with major consequences for our climate, the world’s weather systems and the way we live.

There has been lots of talk since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was launched 25 years ago this week on June 4th, 1992 at the Earth Summit. There’s been some activity, but we are leaving it very late to make the level of change needed to avoid that 2oC temperature rise and damaging climate change. Individual action is important, but this is not something that can be solved by any country working in isolation. International co-operation is vital.

So, there is a question to both sides of the EU debate:  How will remaining in, or leaving the EU help drive the international action necessary?

Some members of the “leave” campaign have, unfortunately, become associated with climate change denial. Pretence that it is not happening does not fill one with confidence that there will be strong leadership, even co-operation, from Britain if we isolate ourselves. Whilst it might be possible for the UK alone to lead the rest of the world in this area, indications so far are that the “leave” campaign wish to slow down progress on climate change, not accelerate it. If willing, we could go further and be in advance of the EU. But this is not the message we are getting from the “leave” campaign.

The “remain” campaign, however, is little better. Whilst there are strong voices pushing for climate change progress, the campaign as a whole is bedevilled by demands for deregulation. A huge emphasis on economic growth (at any cost, and whatever it means) and the removal of any perceived barriers shifts the whole frame of any discussion away from the need to safeguard the environment and the ecosystem functions on which we depend. This could undermine attempts to address significant areas of market failure – and climate change is about the biggest market failure we’re likely face! 

On one hand we could become separate from the EU and show unilateral leadership in the response to climate change (but all indications are that we would do the opposite). On the other, we could stay in the EU and be part of a powerful group influencing international agreements to combat climate change (against the background of a UK trying to weaken international progress). That is the choice.

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