2026: Europe’s progressive climate policies

In less than two weeks’ time, the UK will vote on whether to stay in or leave the EU. I am doing all I can for the Stronger In campaign (http://www.strongerin.co.uk/#QkGoYymoqlkpWtIE.97). Opinion polls predict a very close result.

Being Labour, I never believe opinion polls. Britain could well vote to leave. But I’m also an optimist. Jon and I set up Climate Answers to try to move the debate beyond warnings of doom and gloom, to outline progressive solutions.

So here is my optimistic scenario for 2026 if the UK votes to Remain on 23 June 2016. It would not be easy to achieve. But nor would it be impossible: I’m not playing fantasy politics.

It is 2026. A decade has passed since the Paris agreement on climate change. In Paris, the EU pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% (from 1990 levels) by 2030. Ten years on, Europe is on track to reduce by closer to 50%. In 2018 it revamped its approach to climate action, accepting that over-reliance on market mechanisms had not delivered investment in green growth or prevented the continuation of dirty coal.

Europe followed the examples of US Presidents Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and British prime minister David Cameron, and used regulation to protect the climate. Continental European leaders had been willing to do this because the UK’s vote to remain in the EU had enabled British politicians to rebuild some trust with their continental neighbours, and convince them that anglo-saxons do not always get everything wrong.

Cameron played a leading role in this rebuilding of trust, and in the revamp of climate policy. His authority was enhanced by victory in the referendum, and the strength of the libertarian right of the Conservative party weakened. The British prime minister worked closely with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and, after May 2017, newly-elected French president Alain Juppe.  Post-referendum, Cameron rejected the argument from his right-wing backbenchers and some of the media that all EU regulation equals ‘Brussels red tape’. Instead, he argued that some continent-wide regulation is necessary, to improve the single market and – even more importantly – to protect public health.

As a result of British efforts and Cameron’s willingness to negotiate and strike deals, European climate and energy policies now have many similarities to the policies introduced in the UK by the 2010-15 Coalition government, including:

  • an EU Emissions Performance Standard to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power stations;
  • a price floor for the EU Emissions Trading System, delivering a meaningful price on carbon.

The 2018 climate policy package was supported by more funding from the EU Budget. In the 2020 Multiannual Financial Framework agreement, there were significant increases in money available for:

  • investment in energy infrastructure, with a focus on improving energy efficiency. The UK, with its poor housing stock, has been a major beneficiary of this funding;
  • technological innovation, including more efficient wind and solar equipment, carbon capture and storage and advanced nuclear power;
  • the construction of a more efficient, more extensive Europe-wide electricity grid. This money has helped bring about the construction of a North Sea grid, enabling Britain to harness the extensive wind power resource without hiking up consumers’ bills. North Sea wind has replaced North Sea oil and gas as a major plank of the British economy.

David Cameron stood down as prime minister in 2019, as he had promised to do before the 2015 General Election. His successor, Theresa May, won an increased Conservative majority in 2020. The defeat of the ‘Brexiteers’ in 2016 had weakened the right of the Conservative party, so halted the rise of climate scepticism. Nigel Lawson, who had argued for Brexit from his home in France, lost most of his influence. So did his Global Warming Policy Foundation, which had questioned the extent of human influence over climate change. Prime Minister May therefore continued the Cameron approach: pragmatically pro-Europe and in favour of climate progress.

The Labour Party, following a general election defeat in 2020 in which it lost votes to the Tories, SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens, decided that it was time for it too to be led by a woman. Lisa Nandy, previously Shadow Energy and Climate Secretary, was elected leader and led the party to victory in 2025.

OK, maybe that last bit is fantasy politics…


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