Ten ways the UK can maintain international leadership on climate change

The UK must take action to reinforce its place as an international leader in climate change despite uncertainty posed by Brexit.

Clare Shakya's picture
Insight by 
Clare Shakya
Clare Shakya is director of IIED's Climate Change research group
01 July 2016
Prime Minister David Cameron has helped the UK provide global leadership on addressing climate change. But he has decided to resign after the European Union referendum vote, and there are fears that the UK will become more insular (Photo: Russell Watkins/DFID, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Prime Minister David Cameron has helped the UK provide global leadership on addressing climate change. But he has decided to resign after the European Union referendum vote, and there are fears that the UK will become more insular (Photo: Russell Watkins/DFID, CC BY-SA 2.0)

This week has seen much discussion within IIED, reflecting on the impact of the result of the UK's referendum on membership of the European Union (EU) on our purpose to promote social and environmental justice on a global scale.

As Andrew Norton noted a few days ago, international partnerships underpin all our work and as such, we are deeply concerned by the vote to 'leave'. This jars with our institutional commitment to build relationships and alliances.

A record to be proud of

Christiana Figueres pointed out on Tuesday that the Paris Agreement on climate change is a reminder of how much countries can achieve when standing together.

And the UK has been a force that other nations can rely on.

Progressive in combating climate change as part of Europe and internationally, the UK can be proud of its role in promoting an ambitious long-term vision for Europe – working pragmatically to drive action and build confidence. 

Examples of the UK's leadership abound. UK – and Scottish – climate legislation set the standard for long-term emission goals for the industrialised global north. The UK has also delivered on promises to start to decarbonise its economy and made an early commitment on climate finance – committing 50 per cent to helping the poorest countries adapt to climate change.  

The UK helped Europe lead from the front in building the joint ambition on long-term emission goals and climate finance. It was pivotal in setting up the European Trading Scheme (ETS) – the largest carbon market – incentivising Europe's biggest emitting industries to act. Now is not the time to walk away.  

Opportunity in adversity?

Last week the 'leave' vote won by a narrow margin. And however we each decided to vote, it is time to consider the impact that leaving the EU will have on the UK's position. Even closer to home, the UK must also think deeply about what sort of union of countries the UK itself can now be.

It is likely that the next two years or more will be dominated by time-consuming negotiations on how the UK will build a new relationship with Europe and the rest of the world, agreeing terms on trade, movement of labour and market access. Much work is also needed to rebuild bridges across the wide divisions in UK society that this vote has made so evident.

Amid this hard work there is an opportunity: the UK has a chance to demonstrate how it will continue to act as a progressive international force on climate change. It needs to act quickly to reassure the international community that the vote to 'leave' does not mean the UK will become insular. 

The opportunity to recommit is now – the Paris Agreement is too significant for one of its greatest advocates to step away just as it needs to be ratified and implemented.

So, congratulations to Amber Rudd, the UK's Climate Change and Energy Secretary, on the UK's commitment to cutting carbon emissions by 57 per cent by 2032. Releasing this ambitious carbon budget just days after the referendum is an important first signal.

An international voice

We suggest 10 actions the UK can take to confirm its place as an international voice committed to equity and sustainability:

  1. Engage people across Great Britain and Northern Ireland, young and old, in setting a vision for the UK's place in the world – reasserting a commitment to climate action, sustainability and tackling inequality for a fair and just future, globally and at home
  2. Prepare the UK's plan for reducing carbon emissions and tackle the impacts of climate change as set out in its intended nationally determined contribution (INDC)
  3. Ratify the Paris Agreement as soon as possible, showing the UK's commitment to implement the deal ahead of the UN climate change negotiations in October
  4. Reconfirm commitment to climate finance for the poorest countries and demonstrate the UK is delivering its share of US$100 billion a year by 2020, with 50 per cent for adaptation. And lead internationally on demonstrating transparency on climate finance flows and building mutual accountability on how the finance is allocated
  5. Demonstrate UK commitment to equity by arguing for direct access to climate finance for developing countries at the Green Climate Fund and by supporting their engagement in the global decision-making processes
  6. Provide business with a carbon price, loud and clear, through a carbon market (either staying in the EU ETS or other means). Investors, currently pausing while the dust settles, are needed now to ensure the UK's energy security over the coming years. UK energy development has for decades been framed by being part of the EU's single energy market and emission trading scheme. Giving business a clear carbon price to work with is one way to give confidence to energy investors
  7. Commit to increasing the share of renewables in the UK energy mix by investing in the burgeoning green tech industry. This could include reintroducing green tariffs, setting councils renewables targets and leading the way on demand management through smart grids
  8. Continue the UK's engagement in high-impact political coalitions such as the High Ambition Coalition and the Cartagena Dialogue – helping build progressive international coalitions that include the poorest countries
  9. Take a leadership role (with other progressive countries both in Europe and globally) in the Paris Agreement's 'rule book' negotiations to ensure these unlock ambitious climate action, and
  10. Ensure new trade deals have sustainability and equity at their heart – agreeing preferential market access to developing countries as Owen Barder suggests and lower tariffs for products produced with lower emissions.

Securing an inclusive future

The UK now has the opportunity of speaking with a distinct voice and as such, is well placed to set the level of ambition needed for rich countries to achieve the aspiration of 1.5°C maximum global warming, and to clearly commit to equitable outcomes that do not disadvantage the poorest countries.

So we ask that the UK government remain engaged, show its young people a commitment to their future, and build a new vision for the UK's international role – one where it works with progressive leaders in Europe and internationally to secure an inclusive and just future for our people and for those around the world.

Clare Shakya ([email protected]) is director of IIED's Climate Change research group.