Separation Anxiety: challenges for the environment from Brexit

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“We need to take environmental discussions out of the technocratic closet and make them popular” was Baroness Kate Parminter’s take home message from this year’s Burntwood Lecture, held by the Institution of Environmental Sciences.

In her lecture, Baroness Parminter, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson in the House of Lords for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, addressed the ‘separation anxiety’ that many environmentalists now face following the vote to leave the European Union (EU). Baroness Parminter did this by setting out two competing views of our society’s economic and environmental future.

Baroness Parminter described the first of these futures, as an economy free from EU regulations: deregulated, low cost, low tax and consequentially low value. She argued that we had already seen evidence of movement in this direction prior to the EU referendum, giving the examples of the 2010 -2015 Conservative – Lib-Dem coalition’s ‘Red Tape Challenge’, which sought to reduce or improve regulation, and the ‘Balance of Competencies’ Review, which concluded that the EU needed ambitious reform to make it more open, competitive, flexible and democratically accountable.

Baroness Parminter’s second and preferred model for the future was one that places high value on air and water, the quality of which would be maintained through the highest environmental standards, whilst operating in a fully engaged and international market. She argued that the EU had already allowed us to do this by being one of the best frameworks in the world, and urged that Britain must now adopt this model by incorporating EU legislation wholesale, or by mirroring or adapting as much as possible in UK law.

With regards to the economy under this scenario, Baroness Parminter emphasised the importance of complying with any EU standards affecting trade, in order for Britain to maintain a competitive export industry,as opposed to seeing these high standards as a burden. She  argued that meeting these trading standards, particular ones concerning climate change, would increase, not decrease, opportunities for businesses..

One example given to illustrate the importance of EU trading standards was the case of REACH – the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, administered by the European Chemicals Agency. By enforcing the reporting of chemical properties, high health and safety standards can be maintained. Without such regulation in the future, Britain would need to either cooperate with these standards or establish its own body with equal or better standards, to main the exports of goods and also avoid the ‘dumping’ of substandard products on the UK market.

In addition, Baroness Parminter recommended that we remain a member of the European Energy Union, which through adopting the Energy Union Framework Strategy aims to bring about the transition to a low-carbon, secure and competitive economy. She also argued that the UK Government should end the renewable energy tax and focus on low carbon, rather than renewable, heat.

From an environmental perspective, Baroness Parminter reminded the audience that it was as recently as the 1970’s that Britain was known as the ‘dirty man of Europe’ due to high levels of air pollution, and warned that we now face a very real threat of repeating history if we lose EU regulations to safeguard our air quality. Citing the Environmental Audit Committee  in September 2016, Baroness Parminter highlighted that under scrutiny, the Environment Minister, Thérése Coffey and Minister for Exiting the European Union, Robin Walker did not commit to maintaining the EU air quality laws following withdrawal from the EU, despite being asked seven times. In the face of Brexit, Baroness Parminter argued that we are set to lose robust compliance systems, highlighting that it was only due to the threat of infraction and pressure from NGO ClientEarth that Government action is now being taken to address poor air quality.

In this vein, a particular cause for concern is that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) would no longer have the rules of court, which Baroness Parminter envisaged would have major impacts on how law is interpreted. This is particularly problematic for the future quality of habitats, water and air. The most obvious way to address this, she argued, is through the Natural Capital Committee (NCC), the independent advisory committee focused primarily on helping the Government to develop its 25-year plan for the natural environment.

Baroness Parminter argued that the Committee should be made permanent to hold the government accountable and that doing so would include transferring ECJ law in order to guarantee environmental standards. She stated that if the Government’s future 25 year plan did not include biodiversity and ‘natural capital’, it should be considered a failure. Furthermore, Baroness Parminter called for the establishment of an Office of Environmental Responsibility (similar to the Office for Budget Responsibility) to provide independent analysis.

On a positive note, and in line with Baroness Parminter’s desired vision for the future, she acknowledged that the government had agreed to adopt the fifth carbon budget (which sets a limit at 1725 MtCO2e between 2028 – 2032). However, she subsequently pointed out that the October announcement to expand Heathrow airport did not make any reference to tackling climate change. Likewise, the National Infrastructure Plan, which outlines the future of UK economic infrastructure, does not reference climate change.

Looking to the future, Baroness Parminter argued that a two year timetable for withdrawal from the EU was unrealistic and urged that more clarity was needed on whether the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ and its contents would be considered as primary or secondary legislation and therefore, whether the government would be able to amend these at will, possibly with limited scrutiny. Baroness Parminter also highlighted that the Bill must take into account new pieces of EU legislation which will be introduced in the future, for example, in the recycling and recovery of waste sector in 2018-19, particularly as the UK is a major exporter of waste in the EU.

However, there is cause for concern that the Bill doesn’t include transboundary pollution or cross boundary trade. This is particularly relevant in relation to the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) which Baroness Parminter acknowledged had in the past had significant issues but was now working towards sustainable yields. She recommended that the UK maintains as close an association as possible with the CFP, post-Brexit, and warned of the need for continuing regulation in the meantime, in order to prevent the issue of over-fishing whilst new legislation is being decided upon. This was particularly important, she suggested in light of comments by George Eustice MP, Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, arguing against the EU’s precautionary principle.

With regards to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), whilst this has received criticism from environmentalists in a similar way to the CFP, it has been an important tool for supporting low input farmers in the uplands. Without the CAP, Baroness Parminter stated, there is an expected £3bn per annum loss for farmers. It remains to be seen whether this deficit will be replaced by the UK Government.

Baroness Parminter expressed her concern that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs does not have enough capacity to deliver on environmental objectives post-Brexit. Baroness Parminter emphasised that environmentalists can no longer rely on the EU to support them when they don’t agree with a decision made by the UK Government; lobbying to influence the development of environmental policy would get harder, Baroness Parminter predicted.

Baroness Parminter concluded by urging environmentalists to both use their passion and present facts to persuade the 52% of people who voted to leave the EU that an alternative, post-industrial future, remaining connected and engaged to EU and international markets, is good for not only Britain’s economy, but also for the health of our citizens and of our land.

The RGS-IBG’s next 21st Century Challenges Policy Forum, on 16 March 2017, will examine social and demographic change in the United Kingdom, including examining the social changes which may have informed voting choices in the referendum on future membership of the EU.

Image: 05-Flag. Marcmo, Flickr.

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