Will the Paris climate agreement sway Britain’s EU debate?by Stanley Johnson / December 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
The UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC), as it then was, on 1st January 1973. Meeting in Paris a few weeks earlier, on the initiative of France’s President Georges Pompidou, the leaders of the six founding members of the EEC (Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) joined the leaders of the accession countries (Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom) in a historic summit.
The origins of the EU’s environmental policy are to be found in the official conclusions of that 1972 Paris meeting. “The Heads of State or Government emphasised the importance of a Community environment policy. To this end they invited the Community institutions to establish, before 31st July 1974, a programme of action accompanied by a precise timetable.”
In April 1973, as part of the advance guard of what would become a considerable wave of British subjects joining the European institutions, I arrived in Brussels to take up a position which was quaintly described in the European Commission’s organisation chart as Head of the Prevention of Pollution and Nuisances Division.
I found that under the leadership of a dynamic Frenchman, Michel Carpentier, the Commission had already prepared the draft programme and timetable, which the Paris summit had called for. My first months “en poste” were spent, among other things, accompanying Carpentier to the meeting of the Council’s Environment Working Group where the draft programme was being scrutinised by delegates from the member states which by then included also the UK representatives.
That first environmental programme, as finally adopted by the Council in November 1973, was an ambitious document. It not only prescribed a role for the Community in the fight against pollution: air, water, waste, chemicals, and noise; it had a section on nature protection and the management of natural resources, as well as a coda proposing an enhanced role for the Community as far as international environmental actions, such as global treaties and agreements, were concerned.
I left Brussels in 1979 on being elected to the European Parliament, but returned to the Commission in 1984 first as adviser to what had by then become the environment directorate-general and subsequently as director of energy policy. During the period 1973 to 1990 (when I left the Commission) I was closely involved in the subject matter of Nigel Haigh’s book—EU environmental policy. I also of course had regular contact with Nigel Haigh himself, who for much of that time served as the able director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP).
Haigh’s book, a collection of his articles and speeches over the years, will be of great interest to those who follow the European institutions in general, as well as the specific field of environmental policy. Haigh provides a running commentary on events. The original Treaty of Rome (1957) did not deal with environmental protection as such. That first Action Programme on the Environment relied heavily on the Treaty’s Article 100 as its legal basis, arguing that “harmonisation” was necessary in order to avoid distortions of trade or competition. Successive Treaty changes have not only given Community action in the environmental field a much securer legal base; they have also ensured that the European Parliament has itself become more directly involved in the legislative process. Today, most of the Commission’s environmental proposals are subject to “co-decision” in the sense that both the European Parliament and the Council must agree to the text in question before it can be officially approved.
Has EU environmental policy made a difference on the world stage? As far as the ozone issue is concerned, Haigh credits the Americans with setting the pace. I have vivid memories of Barbara Blum, then Deputy Head of the US Environmental Protection Agency, coming to Europe to cajole the reluctant Europeans into taking action. If the “ozone hole” today is shrinking, particular credit is due not only to the United States, but to Mostafa Tolba, then Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme who fought hard for the Montreal Protocol and its controls on chlorofluorocarbons.
As far as the more general issue of climate change is concerned, Haigh rightly admires the EU’s leading role in the negotiations leading up to agreement on the Kyoto Protocol, even though the US, one of the major emitters of greenhouse gasses subsequently failed to ratify that agreement. But, as always, the key factor is implementation. Here Haigh—to my mind correctly—observes that under the EU’s emission trading systems “the carbon price created has been too weak to drive significant investments in the low-carbon alternatives required.”
The EU has also, by any measure, played an important role in the international agreement reached in Paris Climate Conference in December 2015 to limit global temperature increase to below 2 degrees Celsius when compared to pre-industrial levels.
It remains to be seen whether the EU will continue to play an important role in the implementation of the Paris accord, including contributing its share of the $100bn per annum financing for developing countries, which the accord envisages.
It also remains to be seen what impact, if any, the EUs environmental achievements, have on public opinion in the UK as far as the promised “in or out” referendum—promised before the end of 2017—is concerned. On the evidence of Nigel Haigh’s book, those achievements are considerable.