Climate Change – top of the Agenda

Remaining in the EU is our best chance of responding to the climate emergency argues Hywel Ceri Jones

The Welsh and Scottish Assemblies as well as the UK Government have all declared an environmental emergency.  Climate change, biodiversity and pollution have shot to the top of the political agenda, powered especially by the inspiring leadership and pressures from schoolchildren and students.  


The huge challenges the UK will face over the next 50 years to meet the range of requirements to avoid the disastrous consequences of climate change cannot be considered separately from the Brexit debate on the terms of the UK’s future partnership with the EU.  These challenges are multifaceted and require smart and well coordinated reform of the interrelated policies involved.


Brexit puts in question the necessary close collaboration of the UK with our European partners to implement jointly the measures needed to meet the terms and targets of the Paris Climate Agreement.  Outside the EU we would lose the value of our present cross border cooperation to address environmental issues which do not respect national boundaries.  The collective clout of the EU to address this global challenge would certainly be impaired by the absence of the UK from the EU’s decision making table. The UK going it alone will weaken the domestic and international impact of its policy stance, rendering it much less effective.  The present EU environment and climate change laws (including emissions trading, energy efficiency and support for low carbon technologies) have the clear advantage of being monitored and enforced at the EU trans-national level, compared with the comparative weakness of machinery within the UK.


In looking forward to the next EU programming period from 2021-2027, the Commission has proposed that the budget for Horizon Europe (the EU’s programme of investment in research and innovation) should be increased to 100 billion Euros, the highest absolute increase ever to the well-known research framework programme.  Most significantly, it will underpin the EU’s collective effort to address global challenges, through effective joint action with a clear focus on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Over half the total Horizon budget will be devoted to tackling global challenges with a target of 25% of this expenditure to support climate objectives and eco-innovation.  


This special focus of Horizon Europe in respect of climate change will be complemented by the ERASMUS+, programme which the Commission proposes to double in size in the EU 2021-27 programming period  to fund strategic and cross disciplinary collaboration between universities on this theme. This sets a new level of ambition for Europe’s global leadership in higher education, science and innovation.  This will promote international cooperation on an unprecedented scale.


The UK needs to continue to act as an important player in this Europe –wide effort in its own interest. Full UK participation in the future in these 2 EU programmes will pay significant dividends .The combined result from investment in these two programmes would feed and enrich future decisions of the UK and the other EU Member States for the medium and long –term. As a result of strong European partnership and joint investment in this way, the collective impact of the EU will be strengthened to implement the Paris Agreement which the UK had fully supported.

The UK has everything to gain from reaffirming its full participation in these programmes as a crucial asset of its membership of the EU.


The EU, moreover , is currently the biggest donor in the world to development aid and cooperation, with the UK as one of the leading member states.  It sets environmental conditions whenever it negotiates trade agreements with countries around the world. This global leverage and influence of the EU through exercise of its “soft power” send an important message around the world and the UK can and should be playing a leading role in this collective effort.


As the UK and its devolved governments now re-examine their capacity to set in train the massive transformations required to address the interrelated problems associated with this climate change emergency,  this is not the moment to weaken our capacity to collaborate fully within the EU. It will be vital especially to engage with the successful large scale EU research and education initiatives which will help drive implementation of the ambitious climate change strategy required in our four nations in the years ahead , mobilising the energy , enthusiasm  and commitment of our young people .


Sadly, with the continuing Brexit impasse at Westminster , considerable uncertainty persists  about the future involvement of the UK in both the Horizon research and ERASMUS+ programmes. Third country status will in no way match the advantages of the present situation as a Member State.  The UK has clearly influenced the priorities of the current Horizon Programme, often providing a leading and coordinating partner in the funded projects, and, in respect of the current Horizon 2020, has paid in 20% less than it has received in funding.


Young people and students are already voicing their strong opposition to the negative impacts of Brexit for their futures,  especially about the continuing uncertainty of future involvement in both the Horizon research and ERASMUS+ programmes, from which the UK has benefitted hugely as well as making our own very distinctive contributions.


We urgently now need alliances between the climate emergency and Remain campaigners as our chances of combating disastrous climate change successfully will be significantly improved if and when we remain an influential EU Member State. This is the moment as we approach the European Elections to spell out a convincing narrative making clear why to remain within the EU is in the best interest of the UK, through pooling our efforts  and resources with our closest neighbours and partners to meet our common global challenges.


The formidable challenges to master the global climate change crisis require more than just policy changes. We need to see a shift in public attitudes in the UK to assert our shared values, rejecting insularity of vision and the siren voices for  unbridled deregulation which motivate many of those who wish to break our European bonds and exit from the partnerships painstakingly built up over the past 40 years. 


Image by Tumisu from Pixabay 

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Hywel Ceri Jones is Former Director General of the European Commission's Directorate General for Employment, Social Policy and Industrial Relations (1993-1998), with responsibility for the European Social Fund and the EU’s Peace and Reconciliation Programme in Northern Ireland. He is also Founder of Erasmus programme and Chair of the European Policy Centre and Director of the European Network of Foundations inter alia.

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