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The environment is now a key battleground in the UK/EU relationship

December 17, 2014 4:01 PM
By Louisa Casson, Campaign Assistant, UK-EU Co-ordination in British Influence
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

At last month's EU summit, Britain's £1.7bn bill stole the show in the UK media. But beneath the confusion and bravado, 28 countries reached consensus to align with Britain's approach to climate and energy. So why didn't this make the headlines?

Over the past month, as attacks against the EU have stepped up, Eurosceptics are increasingly targeting environmental protection to make their case. An Open Europe report accused EU energy policy of raising UK energy bills. A key tenet of Business for Britain's campaign for a referendum is their claim that EU energy policy allegedly costs the UK 1.5 million jobs.

But the week after sacked environment minister Owen Paterson insisted we should scrap the UK's landmark climate legislation, it was on climate and energy that David Cameron was able to work most productively with his fellow European leaders. In the final negotiations over the EU's climate and energy framework up to 2030, the UK prime minister wasn't left isolated. In fact, as British energy secretary Ed Davey put it: "Effectively what we've done is Europeanise the UK's Climate Change Act - the rest of Europe is levelling up to what the UK has already committed to do."

This high-level agreement over the headline elements of the EU 2030 package saw leaders adopt a binding target to reduce Europe's greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% from 1990 levels plus commitments to increase renewable energy, energy efficiency and electricity grid interconnections across Europe. As a compromise between the differing stages of low-carbon transition across Europe, flexibility in the agreement allows targets to be ratcheted upwards further down the line.

The negotiation over Europe's climate and energy framework to 2030 was a far cry from the EU budget bravado. The agreement between 28 countries on how to approach climate and energy issues for the next two decades was about co-operation to tackle common challenges.

The decision is important for both environmentalists and pro-Europeans. Because if there was ever a meaningful articulation of what the EU is for, look to environmental protection and climate action.

The EU is about safeguards against threats that put all European nations at risk. This decision has put a floor, not a ceiling, on what member states should do to reduce carbon emissions, meaning all European countries are playing a part in managing climate risk. The negotiations furthered cooperation not just on climate security, but also on Europe's energy security. Common measures are important. They ensure that European nations will not be exposed through weak links in the region, but will be stronger together.

The EU is about reaping the benefits from shared resources. With the wind power potential in the north to the vast growth of solar energy in the south, Europe's clean energy transition demonstrates that the whole is greater than the sum of the EU's parts. Last month's decision to increase electricity interconnections between member states paved the way for lower energy bills in a single EU energy market.

The EU is about creating markets of scale, reaching beyond the capabilities of individual nations. Europe-wide objectives for increasing renewable energy and energy efficiency signal to investors that Europe's low-carbon industries are here to stay. EU leaders also agreed to replenish and increase funding for low-carbon innovation.

While there is a lot more to do in strengthening these areas of the package, the next stages in the process will provide an opportunity for MEPs and national ministers to develop and improve upon Heads' decisions. This is important as in the final stages Cameron increasingly prioritised the political threat from UKIP and his own MPs over the far greater threat presented by climate and energy challenges left unmanaged - stifling ambitious outcomes.

In the preparatory negotiations over the package, the UK proactively engaged with EU allies to call for higher climate ambition, beyond what the old Commission saw as 'politically possible'. Building a coalition of 'Green Growth' ministers meant that the UK's more ambitious proposal to cut carbon emissions made it into the final text, signalling to the rest of the world that Europe has not turned its back on tackling climate change.

However, as Cameron let Eurosceptic hype define his negotiating position, he undermined British leadership. UKIP and the Daily Mail sucked the sense out of the debate, particularly over energy efficiency: the 'no brainer' solution to reducing Russian gas imports and tackling fuel poverty. The furore over 'Hoovergate' (aka the phase-out of inefficient costly vacuum cleaners) entrenched Cameron's reluctance to accept a meaningful energy efficiency target. Instead of cutting Europe's energy dependency and choosing one of the most cost-effective ways to cut emissions, leaders eventually compromised on a non-binding target that will aims for less than business as usual.

These decisions are too important to be made by self-styled populists. They will always choose short-term political mileage over a coherent long-term vision. Eurosceptics and climate sceptics alike are against a collective response to shared challenges. An island mentality is outdated and irresponsible when we're faced with Vladimir Putin's aggression and increasingly stark warnings from the UN on the impacts of climate change.

The Ukraine crisis and the IPCC climate science report have showed that our current climate and energy systems - in the UK and in the EU - are not sustainable. But by rolling back the benefits we get from a Europe-wide approach, we let disruptive climate impacts and energy insecurity force a transition. To deliver an orderly transition that reaps the economic benefits of acting early and safeguards its citizens, we need to address the UK's intermittent approach to playing a positive hand in Europe. To keep the lights on, we need to keep Britain in the EU.