Brexit and climate change policy

Guest post by Professor David Campbell, Lancaster University Law School. (First published in The Reporter: The Newsletter of the Society of Legal Scholars, Winter 2016.)

An intriguing light is thrown on the implications of Brexit for domestic and transnational policy formulation by research into the way in which the 2°C target, now ‘adopted’ in Art 2 of the Paris Agreement, has come to be the cornerstone of international climate change policy.

The source of the 2°C target is the Assessment Reports (ARs) produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but only in a most indirect way. The ARs have identified 2°C as one of a range of possible ‘stabilisation’ targets ultimately drawn from a huge number of ‘emissions scenarios’. However, the IPCC has never attempted to defend the selection of the 2°C target from amongst all these alternatives. The 1995 Second AR insisted that ‘These examples do not represent any form of recommendation about how such stabilisation levels might be achieved or the level of stabilisation which might be chosen’, and this has been the position ever since. There may be consensus over climate change, but unfortunately the IPCC has never been able to tell us what it is.

The selection of the 2°C target is the result of what the latest, Fifth AR describes as ‘political processes’ worked through ‘a series of high-level political events’. Research seems to show that the first of these events was a 1996 Meeting of the Council of the European Union, at which the 2°C target was selected from amongst the alternatives set out in the Second AR in order to push forward UN climate change negotiations which were even then giving the Council ‘concern’ because they were ‘not advancing as needed to achieve [their] intended objective’. After preparatory consideration by committees of the Commission and the Council, the target was placed as an item not requiring substantial discussion on the agenda of a Meeting configured for environmental matters which also discussed, inter alia, humane animal trapping, pollution by non-road mobile machinery, and zoos. Briefly figuring in the minutes of the Meeting, the 2°C target is not even mentioned in the report of that Meeting in the EU Bulletin.

This Conclusion has since been used to justify the adoption of the 2°C target by innumerable other EU bodies, promotion of that target being stepped up after 2009 in order to ‘reinvigorate’ a UN process that the Commission feared was badly damaged by the Copenhagen Conference. This has fed into the deliberations of other national and international bodies co-ordinated by the UN Climate Change Secretariat, and it is now at the heart of the Emissions Gap Report produced by the UN Environment Programme. EU diplomacy which began with the Council Conclusion being made the basis of the EU negotiating position at the 1996 Geneva Climate Change Conference has led to the 2°C target always being mentioned in reports of the subsequent Conference proceedings, and these have now culminated in the Paris Agreement, which is shortly to enter into force.

The striking thing about all this is the ‘reflexivity’ of the process. Research seems to show that no attempt has been made in public debate at UK, EU or UN levels to in substance justify the selection of the 2°C target from amongst all the emissions scenarios. (The closest one might say anything comes to this is the just over three pages spent on it in The Stern Review, but, leaving aside the substantive evasiveness of the argument, the Stern Review itself is an ‘official’ document in only a significantly distanced way.) Typically, reference back is made to the fact of the 1996 Council Conclusion. It no doubt strains the credulity of those not versed in the ways of transnational governance in general and EU governance in particular that one of the most important policies ever adopted could be adopted in this way, which has managed to all but completely avoid public justification of that adoption.

It would prima facie seem that Brexit provides an excellent opportunity for the UK to escape from policy-making of this nature. But if one looks at the list of those who represented the Member States at the 1996 Council Meeting, one finds the UK’s principal representative to have been the Rt Hon John Gummer MP, then Secretary of State for the Environment, who, with Lord Stern, has been one of the two most influential figures in UK climate change policy. As Lord Deben, John Gummer is, of course, now Chair of the Committee on Climate Change set up under the Climate Change Act 2008. Now, it is true that the UN process has never managed to secure a binding commitment to global emissions reductions, either with reference to the 2°C or any other target, and so unilateral action by the EU, much less by the UK, can have no significant effect on the global concentration of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, the UK’s establishing of a binding, and extremely demanding, domestic absolute reductions commitment is often justified, not least by the Committee on Climate Change, by this being necessary to comply with the EU policy in which mention of the 2°C target features largely.

That it has been possible to argue for a domestic UK policy by reference to what is needed to comply with a EU policy without it being made at all clear that the UK played an important role in formulating that EU policy is an example of one way in which transnational governance has undermined democracy and accountability. But, of course, Brexit is only a necessary, and hardly a sufficient, condition for remedying this. The ultimate source of the problem is the UK’s domestic democratic deficit that has allowed those like Lord Deben to pursue their improving projects at a transnational level from a position of power granted them by UK national authority. This exploitation of domestic national authority in order to formulate policy transnationally has been the core of globalisation and the seeming concomitant ‘powerlessness’ of the nation state. Brexit that does not address this will be of only very limited value.


  1. In current usage, the 2°C (or 1.5°C) target is interpreted as relative to a pre-industrial baseline. But in the Second Assessment Report, temperature increases were typically figured from a 1990 baseline. [For example, see the caption of Figure 1(a) in the SPM.] In the 1996 EU meeting where a 2°C target was selected, was a baseline mentioned?


  2. Brings home the truth that almost every part of climate alarmism stinks to high heaven. Is there nothing that does not reek of some form of fudgery, deliberate malfeasance or skullduggery? The sooner this whole pile of excrement is brought down the better.


  3. The 2K target was first suggested by the Scientific Council for Global Environmental Questions of Germany in 1995. It was adopted by the German government in the same year, and by the European Union a year later, and by the United Nations in 2014.

    As far as I can see, Brexit will have no impact on UK emission targets. Leaving the European Court of Justice does imply leaving the EU Emissions Trading System. In 2013-14, 30% of emission reductions in the UK were achieved through importing permits from other EU countries, particularly Poland.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The sheer impossibility of cutting CO2 will impact our targets most. Brexit will just further restrict the money floating around to waste on it. It will help expose the shell game of hiding emissions with permits and other frauds. It offers the government an excuse to put it on the back burner. The harder the Brexit deal, the less likely we are to stay in legacy EU clubs.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have a vague memory that Phil Jones, in the climategate emails admitting to ‘making up’ the 2 degrees number. It is only a vague memory, and apologies Phil if I have this wrong.


  6. This article demonstrates that the 2°C target enshrined in the Paris Agreement and therefore in the law of the signatory countries of the European Union has not only no basis in science, but no political basis either, since it was adopted with no discussion at a meeting of the European Union which didn’t even mention the decision in its minutes.

    If anyone cared about democracy in the European Union, or the importance of basing political decisions on sound science, this article would be creating a huge scandal. But it isn’t , because they don’t.

    But to me the real importance of the article lies in the demonstration of the power of the legal approach to the climate debate. This point was first made clear to me eight years ago in the fuss over the judicial enquiry into the showing of Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth” in schools. The judge ruled that the film could only be shown accompanied by corrections to nine scientific errors he had identified, and the newspaper reports I read at the time tended to question the judge’s qualifications for making judgements on scientific matters. In fact, what Justice Burton did was compare the assertions in Al Gore’s film with the science in the IPCC reports. The newspapers avoided the inconvenient truth that it was Al Gore who was denying the science, not the judge. Two weeks later Gore and the IPCC shared a Nobel Peace Prize, and their differences were forgotten.

    It was Tony Newbery of Harmless Sky
    who recommended reading Justice Burton’s ruling in full. It can be found at
    by clicking on uk.dimmock.10Oct07.doc

    Legal rulings are, lets face it, not passionate page turners. Professor Campbell’s article takes a highly political position on Brexit and the role of the nation state. His analysis (and the additional information provided by Richard Tol in his comment) is unanswerable, which is why it won’t be answered.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. In the past I’ve occasionally come across similar slights of hand in the scientific literature where an author A might make an interesting assertion and then reference another author, B. I went and dug out the referenced paper where author B would make this same assertion with a reference. Scanning down to the references at the end of the article it would then reference author C with the sentence “Personal communication”.

    While that is one of the worst examples, it is more common to see a paper referenced which, when tracked down, simply turns out to be wholly irrelevant to the specific topic under discussion. Sure, that sometimes happens by accident, but it happens too often and bureaucrats know the tricks of their trade.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Michael.Hart. Referencing someone with a “Personal Communication” is not always bad, although I know of some journals that ban them. I encountered this once where I wanted to use this device and managed through long argument to get my way. In instances where the material referenced genuinely came in the form of a letter or other non-verbal communication, where there is no intention to publish by the writer of the communication and it is integral to the argument I see little wrong with using it. If you don’t use it you are falsely claiming the content of the communication as your own.

    In the case of your example Author A displays poor scholarship in that the correct reference should have been to Author C (pers. comm. in [work of] Author B. Author A probably never read Author B properly and may well be completely unaware o author C. The whole enterprise also reflects poorly on the reviewing process done by reviewers who didn’t know the literature and an editor that sent the manuscript to the reviewers.

    Your second gripe (which can be echoed by many) similarly records poor scholarship by author and the reviewing process.

    As a journal editor you cherish and probably overwork good reviewers. They are like golden hen’s teeth.


  9. Is no one going to chip in on Prince Charles’s magnum opus for Ladybird books, Co written with eminent climate actiscientists such as Emma Shuckburgh. A legal challenge might be in order if it is distributed to schools


  10. Excellent lucid legal paper, well presented and argued.
    I wish there were more articles like this.


  11. The origins of 2 degrees goes back further than 1995, it was first mentioned by economist William Nordhaus in 1975:

    CAN WE CONTROL CARBON DIOXIDE? William D. Nordhaus June 1975

    (A working paper for IIASA)

    “As a first approximation, it seems reasonable to argue that the climatic effects of carbon dioxide should be kept well within the normal range of long-term climatic variation. According to most sources the range of variation between climatic (sic) is in the order of ± 5 °C., and at the present time the global climate is at the high end of this range.

    If there were global temperatures more than 2 or 3°C. above the current average temperature, this would take the climate outside of the range of observations which have been made over the last several hundred thousand years.

    Within a stable climatic regime, the range of variation of ± l °C is the normal variation: thus in the last 100 years a range of mean temperature has been 0.7°C.”

    We are told that current “warming” since pre-1850 is l °C, so we are within the range of natural variation, according to Nordhaus in 1975, yet we are told that this is all due to anthropogenic emissions of CO2.

    In 1977, Nordhaus expanded on his theme in Discussion paper 443 for the Cowles Foundation at Yale:

    “Strategies for the Control of Carbon Dioxide”

    In this paper he repeated a lot of his IIASA paper, including the seminal paragraph: “If there were global temperatures more than 2 or 3°C. above the current average temperature, this would take the climate outside of the range of observations which have been made over the last several hundred thousand years.”

    However, he changed his figure for the range of variation within a stable climatic regime “such as the current interglacial”, from l°C, to 2°C and said that in the last 100 years a range of mean temperature had been 0.6°C, rather than his earlier 0.7.

    In 1990, the UN AGGG (United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases), was asking for no more than a 1 degree rise in global temperature. That in turn traces back to the Villach Conference of 1986, and the subsequent Bellagio Conference in 1987, when some of the main proponents of the AGW meme were present, and have been driving it ever since. The 1990 AGGG 1 degree morphed into 1.5 degrees and then again into 2 degrees. After Paris, 1.5 degrees is the new mantra for the activists.

    In 1995, John Schellnhuber, Director of the Potsdam Institute (and Climate Advisor to the Pope), promoted 2 degrees via the German Advisory Council on Global Climate Change, of which he has been alternately Chairman and Vice-Chairman for many years. He has claimed 2°C as “his” ever since. It was essentially based on the simplistic logic of Nordhaus and in 1996, it was adopted by the EU.

    The WBGU’s recommendation: “A maximum of 2°C warming is acceptable. The WBGU reaffirms its conviction that in order to avert dangerous climatic changes, it is essential to comply with a ‘climate guard rail’ defined by a maximum warming of 2°C relative to pre-industrial values. As the global mean temperature has already risen by 0.6°C since the onset of industrialization, only a further warming by 1.4°C is tolerable. A global mean long-term warming rate of at most 0.2°C per decade should not be exceeded. This climate window should be agreed as a global objective within the context of the UNFCCC process. The European Union should seek to adopt a leading role on this matter.”

    Richard Tol also examined the 2 degree target in 2005, here: “Europe’s Long Term Climate Target: A Critical Evaluation”, with a later version in 2007:

    His conclusion was, “This target is supported by rather thin arguments, based on inadequate methods, sloppy reasoning, and selective citation. Overall, the 2°C target of the EU seems unfounded.”

    The EU’s own defence of it in 2008, is here: Full of quotes from AR4 and modelling projections.

    “This paper outlines the scientific background for the EU climate protection target – the 2°C limit – established by the EU Governments in 1996 and reaffirmed since then by the Environment Council 2003, and European Council, 2005, 2007. The paper also identifies how this target may be achieved through global action.”

    All of which of course is dependent on the belief that CO2 is a planetary temperature control knob, by which you can dial up the temperature decided to be “correct” for the planet. Would it be temperatures from pre-1850? It was pretty cold coming out of the LIA then, is that the correct temperature that we should aspire to? Who gets to decide? A global referendum?


  12. Thanks Dennis

    While Nordhaus wrote about alternative targets, include a 2K one, before anyone else, his early work was largely ignored. Nordhaus did influence the climate policy of Bush the Elder, but by then Nordhaus preferred a carbon tax over a temperature target.

    Schellnhuber did have the ear of the German government when he recommended the 2K target, and that was the first government to adopt it.


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