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Anthony Browne: In the wake of Brexit, Britain goes green while the EU greenwashes

Anthony Browne

Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire, and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment. He is a former Europe editor of The Times.

Just how green is the EU? Many green groups were opposed to Brexit because they thought that the EU was a global leader on the environment, and that on its own the UK would slip back to being an isle that is more brown than emerald.

It is true that the EU has driven many environmental improvements, but it also has serious flaws. The main reason I voted Brexit was because I saw successive British prime ministers battling to reform the environmentally flawed Common Agricultural Policy and the Commons Fisheries Policy, but with very limited success because of entrenched vested interests. Free to set its own rules, the UK has quickly replaced both policies with far more sustainable alternatives.

While the UK has made great progress in bringing about a green Brexit in recent months, the EU’s green crown is slipping off. The EU said recently that global leadership on climate change was its “man on the moon moment,” but unfortunately, the bloc is still stuck on the launch pad.

In climate conscious Europe, millions of people have taken to the streets for climate strikes, and a green surge in the most recent elections has resulted in the Greens/European Free Alliance becoming the fourth largest group in the European Parliament.

But the ambitions of its citizens is not matched by the EU’s actions. The EU has cut CO2 emissions per capita by just 24 per cent since the benchmark year of 1990, which is not much better than the US (21 per cent), and about half the reduction of the UK, at 45 per cent.

Ursula von der Leyen has pledged to make the EU the world’s first climate neutral continent by 2050, and has also ramped up its emissions reduction target from a 40 per cent cut to a 55 per cent cut by 2030, relative to 1990.

It plans to deliver this through the European Green Deal – a flagship programme to drive the shift to clean energy and create green jobs. But these commitments aren’t yet set in law, and the Green Deal’s centrepiece, the Climate Law, is still being negotiated at a snail’s pace. By contrast, the UK was the first country in the world to set our 2050 net zero target into law.

Now that the US has rejoined the Paris Agreement, and China has committed to net zero by 2060, the EU is rightly aiming to be a major power-broker at global climate negotiations in the run-up to the UN Climate Conference COP26 in Glasgow. But these ambitions are not being realised.

Rather than giving up its dependence on fossil fuels, Germany has abandoned carbon-neutral nuclear power, and proceeded with building a new gas pipeline from Putin’s Russia, despite the risk of locking in high-carbon infrastructure. The EU has also failed to adequately push China to raise its climate ambition, instead signing a Comprehensive Investment Agreement which was a missed opportunity.

Brussels has now caused uproar among green groups by engaging in some egregious greenwashing – marketing something to look environmentally-friendly that isn’t. The EU is currently designing the EU taxonomy for sustainable finance, a classification system for ‘sustainable’ investments in line with the European Green Deal that will mobilise private finance for a carbon neutral economy. A taxonomy should be a useful tool to enable investors, consumers, public authorities and the private sector to ensure they are directing money towards investments that can genuinely deliver net zero emissions.

But a leaked document has revealed that the EU is planning to classify gas – a fossil fuel – as a ‘sustainable’ investment in some circumstances, in particular to ensure security of supply. There may be some scope for some transitional gas investments on the way to net zero, but this is likely to be very minor. Environment groups estimate that up to half of all gas plants would be exempted by this new proposal.

The inclusion of gas within the green taxonomy risks encouraging new high-carbon investment, undermining the Green Deal and the EU’s ability to achieve its Paris Agreement goals. Sebastian Godinot, an economist at the WWF’s Brussels office, is resported by Euractive news website as saying: “This last minute proposal is scandalously opposed to climate science and would destroy the credibility of the whole EU taxonomy. This very proposal is in complete contradiction with President von der Leyen’s ambitions for the European Green Deal and higher EU climate targets, and would discredit the global climate leadership of the EU.” Luca Bonaccorsi from the green campaigners Transport and Environment (T&E) insisted: “It is greenwashing at its worst.”

Mairead McGuinness, the European Commissioner who oversees the taxonomy, is keen to make this the world-first science-based tool to identify green investments the gold standard for sustainable finance globally. Instead, environment groups say the EU has “caved into the gas lobby”, as well as pressure from Eastern and Southern member states who support gas as a transition fuel. The taxonomy, which is supposed to put a stop to corporate greenwashing, has itself been turned into greenwashing. If the EU wishes to deliver its “man on the moon moment”, it should exclude gas from its final green taxonomy.

We shouldn’t be complacent about our own record in the UK. There is still much to do to get on track to our net zero target. But as the UK embarks on designing its own sustainable finance taxonomy outside the EU, let’s make sure we create the gold-standard framework for investment in a zero carbon future, based strictly on science and free from industry lobbying. That would be true global leadership.

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