A bright spot amid Brexit? Growing momentum for global climate action.

Nat Keohane

Last week’s vote by the British to leave the European Union has triggered a crisis in political leadership, thrown financial markets into turmoil and prompted eulogies for the European project – even as the ultimate consequences of the vote remain uncertain.

Against that backdrop, a bit of good news may be welcome. And it comes from an unlikely quarter: climate action.

That may sound surprising at first since climate change was hardly a high-profile issue in the Brexit campaign. Voting on the referendum reflected concerns about inequality, immigration, globalization, multiculturalism and an out-of-touch political elite.

Even so, the prospect of the United Kingdom’s departure has raised concerns about impacts on climate and energy policy, including possible delays in finalizing the EU’s 2030 emissions target.

But whatever the implications may be for Britain and the EU, one thing is clear: Brexit can’t derail the overwhelming global momentum on climate action that produced the Paris Agreement.

The Paris Agreement: Strength in numbers

A British exit from the EU would not have any effect on the formal architecture of the agreement, which was approved last December by more than 190 countries and has been signed by 177 – including each of the EU member states. 

Given that overwhelming support, the agreement may very well enter into force this year – something that will happen once at least 55 countries representing 55 percent of global emissions formally join the agreement.

To date, 50 countries representing more than 53 percent of global emissions have formally joined or committed to join the agreement this year — closing in on the threshold of 55 countries and 55 percent of emissions needed for the agreement to enter into force. As a result, the agreement may well enter into force as soon as this year, even without the EU (which was not expected to join the agreement this year in any case).

This signals a remarkable shift. A decade ago, Europe was the world’s indispensable leader on climate action – and even temporary uncertainty about the pace of progress in the EU would have had repercussions around the globe.

The Paris Agreement, however, was the culmination of a paradigm shift away from a model of “top-down” climate action concentrated in a handful of countries, and toward more a more decentralized and inclusive approach.

As climate action has become much more broad-based, it has also become more resilient.

Climate leadership beyond the EU

That is not to say that leadership on climate from both the U.K. and the EU is not vital; it is, and will continue to be. Taken as a whole, Europe is still the world’s third-largest emitter. It remains a powerful and valuable voice for ambition.

Fortunately, political support for climate action in the region remains high, with 60 percent of Europeans saying global warming is already harming people around the world.

But we are long past the days when climate progress depended on one bloc of countries. Just consider this:

  • The leaders of the three North American countries met today to announce greater cooperation on climate change – including major new commitments on clean energy and on methane emissions from oil and gas.
  • Under the leadership of President Obama, the United States is now a global leader on climate action, with U.S. emissions in 2014 at 9 percent below their 2005 level, and an ambitious target of reducing emissions between 26 and 28 percent by 2025, relative to 2005.
  • President Xi Jinping of China has made tackling climate change a priority, with a commitment to ratify the Paris Agreement this year, a pledge to peak China’s emissions by 2030, if not before; and a plan to institute a nationwide emission trading program as early as next year.
  • The unprecedented bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and China, culminating in the joint announcements on climate change made by Presidents Xi and Obama in November 2014 and again in September 2015, were a crucial step in laying the foundation for success in Paris.
  • Brazil – although currently engulfed in political turmoil of its own – has reduced emissions over the past decade more than any other country, thanks to the enormous success of its Amazon states in curbing tropical deforestation.
  • India, where the moral imperative of poverty alleviation remains paramount, is committing to renewable energy and experimenting with new models of low-carbon development.

Other factors driving momentum

Underlying these country-level shifts are more fundamental drivers. The impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly more visible, in record temperatures and extreme weather events.

A clean energy revolution is underway: Wind power is competitive with coal in much of the world even without subsidies, the cost of solar panels has dropped 75 percent in less than a decade and new technologies for how we use and store energy more efficiently are transforming markets.

Meanwhile, leading companies are stepping up by reducing their carbon footprints, greening their supply chains and calling for policies such as a price on carbon.

In short, leaders around the world have come to the realization that the path to shared global prosperity is a low-carbon path.

That makes the politics of climate action more resilient now than they ever have been before. And that is good news to keep in mind in these uncertain days.

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