Brexit on the environment and Green Economy

While my life as an MEP continues with the busy round of committee meetings and visits to scythe fairs (ok, that was something of a one-off!) it is hard not to be distracted by the referendum campaign. It is especially hard to overlook the comments from George Eustice, the environment minister who is fighting for us to leave the EU, about the impact of the EU’s environmental legislation.

The EU has been widely praised as a global beacon of strong protection for species, habitats, and the cleanliness of our air, water and beaches. This has led to a raft of the UK’s environmental pressure groups coming down clearly in support for our continued membership of the EU; even risking their charitable status in the process. From Friends of the Earth and RSPB to the Wildlife Trusts and Bug Life, the organisations that do the most to restrain the destructive impacts of unsustainable business have joined in common voice to make clear the importance of our remaining inside the EU.

However, there is less unity at DEFRA.  To Eustice this legislation is ‘spirit crushing’. He gleefully foresees the end of the Birds and Habitats Directives. Greening and cross-compliance measures included in the Common Agricultural Policy would, in a post-Brexit world, be replaced with insurance schemes and non-statutory accreditation.

The hostility to climate change action is also a feature shared by many in the Leave camp. Former Chair of Vote Leave, Nigel Lawson, was the founder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which dedicated itself to delaying government action on climate change, while leading Brexiteer Michael Gove tried to remove a study of climate change from the school curriculum during his disasterous stint as Minister of Education.

We have already seen from this Tory government the impact of their close ties with the fossil fuel industry and their hostility to renewables. However, the prevalence of ideological opponents of climate change suggests an even more troubled future for the UK’s hugely promising renewables industry outside the EU, where we would no longer have the current mandatory targets on renewable capacity.

While in many EU member states the Green transition has been seen as an economic opportunity, to the British Conservative party it is always portrayed as a burden on business. No wonder, then, that we have no capacity for the manufacture of either solar panels or large-scale wind turbines (and full credit to Dale Vince for developing micro turbines in my home town of Stroud). Small wonder also that the Tory government has shown such inordinate enthusiasm for the toxic white elephant at Hinkley Point, but has always been lukewarm about the proposed tidal lagoons in the Severn Estuary which would represent a huge engineering advance for the country.

This distorted view of EU policy to support green industry has been typified by the banal and ill-informed debate around energy-efficient products. While other European manufacturers are watching energy standards tighten and upgrading their products to match, British businessmen are forced to read the Daily Express nonsense about floppy toast and the theft of the Great British roast. The higher-efficiency products will limit energy in, not energy out, meaning they work better and reduce consumers’ energy bills. But given the deliberate misunderstanding of this policy in the UK, we are unlikely to see them manufactured here, as foreign competitors with support from their forward-thinking, future-proofing governments have a huge industrial advantage.

The absence of the environment from the referendum campaign has been noted by Green commentators, but I think the environment is highly present as a ‘hidden’ issue. When Brexiteers talk about cutting red tape, what they have in mind is a full-scale assault on the legislation that protects our special places and ensures climate responsibility from businesses. This foreshadows a Dickensian world where the profit motive is allowed to let rip, heralding a chilly future indeed for Green Business.

 

This blog was originally posted on Business Green.

The EU leading on Climate Action

Today is World Oceans Day. Our oceans are the life support system of our planet, regulating our climate and producing around half of our oxygen, as well as being a rich source of biodiversity. I’ve previously written about the important role the EU has played in protecting our local environment, but what about our global environment? Climate change drives ocean warming, and is the most daunting issue facing us all today. But it’s one issue we can overcome if we tackle it together, and in doing so create a cleaner, greener and more equal society.

Our historic carbon emissions are causing ocean acidification as well as warming the climate, and today our leaders recognise the importance of acting now, even if they sometimes fail to do so. Climate diplomacy is one of the best examples of the European Union acting to facilitate cooperation among its member countries, and their collective voices on the global stage, working together towards the common good. Our influence and ability to be ambitious in climate negotiations is through EU membership. Together, we represent around 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the third largest in the world behind China (at around 24%), and the US (at around 12%). The UK on its own emits a small and declining share of global greenhouse gas emissions, and as such would be left lacking in influence at international climate negotiations if it were to leave the EU.

As part of the EU therefore, we were instrumental to the successful negotiation of the Paris Agreement at COP21. This was because we successfully used our position as an ambitious bloc of developed countries to bridge the historically conflicting interests of reluctant developed countries and ambitious developing countries. The EU did so by building the ‘High Ambition Coalition’ over the course of 2015, which eventually drew in well over 100 countries, including other big greenhouse gas emitters such as the US and Brazil.

Under previous governments, the UK even led on pushing the EU to be ambitious with its own climate policy. As a result, the block set a 20:20:20 target under Europe 2020. That’s 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, 20% increase in efficiency, and 20% energy production from renewables from 1990 levels and we’re set to surpass those today. The UK is legally bound through this to produce 15% of our energy from renewables, and with a government so keen to slash support for renewables, having these obligations and targets is essential to prevent us dragging our feet.

To help us meet these targets, the EU supports the development of low carbon technologies. For example, the NER300 programme for renewable energy technologies and carbon capture and storage is one of the world’s largest funding programmes for innovative low-carbon energy demonstration projects, and we’ve already heard lots about the Horizon 2020 programme for research and innovation. This is alongside our strong Nature Directives that protect our marine and terrestrial envrionment.

“But we can fund these projects ourselves without the EU,” cry some Brexiteers. Well yes we could, but all it takes is a look at the leading figures of the Leave campaign to see the grim picture they paint for our environmental laws and targets, climate change focussed or otherwise. Michael Gove tried to remove climate change from the National Curriculum, Nigel Lawson is an outspoken anthropogenic climate change denier, and the other Nigel is the leader of a party that would scrap the UK climate change act.

So we know then that protecting our environment, our oceans, and our climate is not on the Leave agenda here. In the EU we have some of the strongest environmental protections in the world and lead on progressive climate action globally. We should be celebrating that and building on it with our dedicated citizens and NGOs, not putting it at risk for Leave’s sake of cutting red tape.

 

Stop Climate Change
Greens-EFA MEPs outside of the European Commission

Another Fishy case for Brexit

With the South West home to two of the three largest fish landing ports in England and Wales, this week I spoke on the radio about EU fisheries policies and how they ensure long term sustainability for the industry, both in terms of fish stocks and jobs for our region.

For a while now, Brexiteers have been manipulating the concerns of those in the fishing industry and misleadingly championing the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) as a reason to abandon the EU and “take back control” of our waters. Aside from the obvious fact that fish do not respect the borders of national waters (which means even Norway has to negotiate fishing quotas with the EU), let’s look at what these fishing policies mean in practical terms for fishermen: how fishing quotas are really allocated, and why these demonstrate that if anything, fisheries policies are a great reason to remain.

Part of the misleading tactics rightly focuses on the fact that, despite the UK fishing fleet being made up primarily of small inshore fishing vessels, just a tiny amount of the UK fishing quota (~6%) is shared between them. However, what they fail to mention is that whilst each Member State negotiates a national quota, the dividing up of these allocated national quotas is decided by the Member States, not the EU. It was George Eustice himself and the Conservative government that chose last year to give just one vessel nearly a quarter of the English quota, not the EU. In fact, some member states already even use the allocation method for dividing their quota called for by some Brexiteers.

The CFP, and the negotiations of national quotas called Total Allowable Catch (TACs), are based around scientific data that show the maximum sustainable yields based on current fish stocks. It’s true that before serious reform in 2013, the CFP was destructive to fish stocks in European waters, with scientists and NGOs rightly raising concerns over the unsustainable practices it facilitated. However a recent analysis of 118 years of statistics revealed the vast majority of the decline occurred prior to the Common Fisheries Policy’s implementation in 1983. In fact, the policy is now overall helping, not harming UK fisheries and would be doing even better if member states didn’t repeatedly ignore scientific advice when allocating TACs, with the UK being one of the worst.

The health of our marine ecosystems depends upon them being protected, and today EU policies seek to do exactly that. The much revered Habitats Directive protects key habitats and species like the Atlantic salmon, and the Water and Marine Strategy Framework Directives commit EU Member States to restore and protect their marine environments. There’s also the successful discard ban that fishermen wanted and the UK fought for. This was a campaign that you won’t have heard about from Nigel Farage despite him sitting on the European Parliament fisheries committee, but from people like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and it’s success demonstrated how people pressure really can change EU policy for the better.

In summary, fish don’t respect borders and collaborative managing of fish stocks is essential for the fishing industry, as much as it is for the environment, in the long term. We’ve come a long way since the days of mass overfishing and illegal fishing, and as a result UK quotas are even on the up. George Eustice himself said not so long ago, “By fighting for the fishing industry, and making a clear case for the need for more sustainable fishing, we have got a good deal and shown we can get what we need in Europe.”
So why would we want to jump ship now?

 

 

See our EU and Fisheries Briefing for more.

Standing Up to Fracking in the EU

The UK government remains set on “going all out for shale”, offering the industry favourable tax treatment, and allowing for fracking to take place under national parks and people’s homes, despite growing public concern. At the European level, the UK government has found some support from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to make the case for shale gas, as they view fracking as a way to create energy security independence from Russia. But there is a huge and growing anti-fracking movement across Europe, and this is increasingly translating into political opposition too.

Environmental and public health concerns, including air pollution and gas leaks, water contamination and scarcity, increased radioactive and seismic activity, and biodiversity loss, are just some of the reasons for this. Not to mention climate change obligations, which are incompatible with a new dash for gas. The European Environmental Impact Assessment Directive already covers shale gas, and the European Commission has recently launched infringement procedures against Poland for not following these rules correctly, showing it is prepared to take action.

Fracking demoIn 2013, as the European Commission prepared proposals for the 2030 climate change targets, there were plans to introduce specific EU legislation covering the shale gas industry. But the UK government led lobbying efforts for no new environmental or public health safeguards, saying the Commission should just clarify the existing legal framework for the industry and help with the exchange of best practice among member states. Following these lobbying efforts, the European Commission came forward with a non-binding Recommendation rather than a Directive on fracking. It also published a Communication and an Impact Assessment, and has been drawing up a reference document on the exchange of best available techniques and risk management for the hydrocarbons sector (BREF).

The UK government has even lobbied, alongside fossil fuel giants including BP, Chevron, Shell and ExxonMobil, for the withdrawal of this BREF document, having previously claimed it was in favour of exchanging best practice. Despite this, the Commission still plans to publish the document by May 2018. While the European Commission’s Recommendation on Fracking is non-binding, and the Communication takes note that there are gaps in EU law when it comes to unconventional hydrocarbons, the Commission has made clear in a previous legal assessment that existing EU environmental legislation does apply to fracking practices from planning to cessation.

The fracking industry is also covered by EU rules when it comes to the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals under the REACH Regulation. And in 2015, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) added a new use category for “oil and gas field fracturing products” to chemical registrations to help increase transparency in the disclosure of the composition of fracking fluid. The UK has made every effort to water down EU legislation on fracking, while also pursuing deregulation at home, cutting environmental, planning and public health safeguards. In this context, existing safeguards from Europe remain an important check on the fracking industry. If the UK leaves the EU, it will be left to this Government to regulate the industry without European oversight.

In a 2015 Eurobarometer, which surveyed 12 EU regions where shale gas exploitation has been permitted or planned, the European public made clear that they were not satisfied with non-binding recommendations, with respondents declaring that the least preferred approach. As Green MEPs we will continue to lobby alongside our colleagues in the Greens / European Free Alliance group for the EU to do more. In February, we supported a successful amendment to a report in plenary that urged Member States to follow the precautionary principle and not authorise any new hydraulic fracturing operations in the EU.

This demonstrates clearly that as a part the EU we can work with the growing movement across Europe that is opposing the corporate interests of the shale gas industry, retain the existing safeguards of EU legislation while pushing for more protection, and work together in the European Parliament to stand up for our environment, public health, and climate. I posed the question this week on the radio: why would we throw that away?

UK Environment Protected by EU Membership

Yesterday the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) published this report on the EU referendum and the UK,  covering policy areas regarding environment – a whopping 14 chapters, by as many experts from across the UK and further afield. The report looks at the impact of 3 scenarios – a vote to remain, a vote to leave and become a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) like Norway, or a vote to leave and negotiate individual free trade deals with the EU. So what did they find?

Environmental protection is a field in which EU cooperation is a defining strength, and with such legislation we as a united continent have taken the lead globally. The experts found that the EU has helped modernise our national policies to become focussed on preventing degradation, with clear standards and deadlines and a commitment to sustainability. They also found, far from Brexiteers claims that we have no influence, that the UK has played a role in moulding EU policy – namely preventing common policy on fracking and soil protection! The report also summarises that “there has been no significant long term convergence towards an environmental superstate in Brussels.”

On Climate Change it paints a better picture of us, with the UK playing a part in advocating ambitious emission reduction targets at the EU level, and shaping the internal energy market. It also shows that the EU has been a driver of our booming renewables sector despite the UK maintaining the right to determine its own energy mix, as demonstrated by the Chancellor recently pulling the rug out from under the sector’s feet. In signing up to the EU 2020 targets for greenhouse gas reductions and increasing the share of renewable energy, the UK was pressured into adopting an overhaul that saw attractive subsidies and industrial incentives alongside a new planning regime.

On Agriculture, it is critical of the impact of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) on the environment, but highlights that in the global context, any likely national agricultural policy pursued from outside the EU would have been along similar lines with similar effects. In the European Parliament, Greens have been leading the drive for a revolutionised CAP that puts environmental stewardship high on the agenda across the bloc, including capping payments to the largest industrial farms and promoting crop rotation.

Aside from the facts about what the EU has provided, an alarming prediction of the report in the event of us leaving is that, in the ‘Norwegian’ scenario, EU environmental rules covering bathing water, habitats and birds, and some aspects of climate legislation would cease to apply. There was recent public outcry over a proposal to water down the EU habitats directives, but a vote to leave could see us losing them altogether. The report also concludes that the CAP and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) would cease to apply, which is obviously a very important consideration, given the size of our rural economy in the South West.

The report is extensive including fisheries, planning, international policy and more, and overall reaffirms the stance that many environmental NGOs have been taking since the announcement for the 23rd June referendum – that the EU sets the bar high for protecting and enhancing our environment and, in the face of a government hell bent on deregulation, there could be grim consequences in a future outside of it.

 

The Economic and Social Research Council is a leading Research Council in the UK, focussing on economic and social concerns. You can find an easy to read executive summary of the report here.