Category Archives: Political leadership

Prospects for a green Brexit, six months on from the referendum

greeneruk_twitter_11Uncertainty filled the air like thick fog on 24 June, 2016 as the result of the EU referendum began to sink in. Green Alliance, along with other environmental organisations, had done its homework, scoping out the likely implications of different scenarios: an overwhelming vote to leave or remain, or a close call either way. That day, we found ourselves dealing with the scenario that would leave us with the greatest deal of work to do: the country had voted to leave, putting the estimated four-fifths of the UK’s environmental protections that stem from EU law into question.

The task ahead of us felt enormous, unprecedented, and rather vague. Clearly we needed to secure a good outcome for the environment at the end of whatever policy processes and politics the referendum vote would give rise to, but at that moment we had very little idea of what those might be. The country had voted to leave, no doubt about that, but where it wanted to get to was less obvious. And the prime minister had resigned, leaving the ship of state somewhat captainless just as it began pulling away from the EU fleet.

Six months on, and the environmental outlook is not quite so fog-filled or bleak. While the days have gradually shortened towards the winter solstice, chinks of light have crept in to illuminate the environmental policy picture, which are welcome even if all they do is display in greater detail what a complex picture it is.

There is (slightly) more clarity on timetable and process
The new prime minister’s speech to the Conservative party conference brought some much-needed clarity on timetable and process. Article 50 would be invoked by the end of March, and there would be a ‘Great Repeal Bill’ to transpose EU law into domestic legislation, to come into effect once the UK leaves. From an environmental perspective at least, that’s not as simple as it sounds: many policies are monitored and enforced by EU institutions, such as the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which helps companies comply with regulations covering thousands of chemicals. Even if we replicate EU standards, we would have to find a way of either replacing those functions and the expertise that goes with them, or agreeing an ongoing relationship with bodies like the ECHA. Andrea Leadsom, secretary of state at Defra, has herself acknowledged that only two-thirds or three-quarters of legislation could be transposed in a “relatively straightforward” way.

These very significant complications aside, it has been reassuring that government ministers have started to address our major concern that environmental standards could be watered down after the UK leaves the EU. In response to questions from MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee, Defra minister Therese Coffey said, “the government is committed to leaving the environment in a better state than we inherited it, so from my perspective, being in or out of the EU doesn’t change that ambition.” Similarly, Brexit minister Robin Walker said in relation to cooperation on environmental issues, “I think there’s nothing to stop us continuing to work multilaterally as a country with all sorts of partnerships … We will continue to have important relationships with our European neighbours and a relationship between the UK and the EU.”

The Greener UK coalition is gaining momentum
Meanwhile, Brexit is proving a galvanising force for the environmental community. We emerged from the fog of June 2016 with a new coalition, Greener UK, which launched publicly two weeks ago. By then, 145 MPs had signed our Pledge for the Environment; that number has since risen to 172 MPs (and counting) – more than a quarter of the House of Commons. And our overall goal is shared by most of the British public: polling shows that 80 per cent of the public think that environmental protection should be as strong or stronger when we leave the EU.

We will be watching the negotiations, the ‘Great Repeal Bill’, and any subsequent legislation very carefully to make sure they don’t weaken current environmental protections. If the government decides not to maintain existing relationships with regulatory agencies such as the ECHA, we will work to ensure that domestic institutions are appropriately empowered to fill the gaps that could open up. These could include essential functions such as monitoring, enforcement, arbitration, and access to justice.

But we must go further than maintaining existing protections, because it’s not as if the environment is in rude health at the moment. Current environmental governance is not good enough. The government recognises this: in September, Leadsom said, “it is my ambition and it’s my department’s vision to be the first generation to leave our environment better than we found it since the industrial revolution.” Brexit could be an opportunity to push our ambitions beyond where the EU has taken us, recognising that restoring nature and reducing pollution are essential to national prosperity in the 21st century. Our environmental governance could become something of which we are nationally proud. Our high standards could be a cornerstone of overseas diplomacy, building on the FCO’s climate diplomacy successes in recent years, rather than letting them falter.

What next?
As we prepare to leave 2016 behind us, we rest on a foundation of relatively comforting words on the environment from those tasked with bringing Brexit about. In 2017, those words need to lead to actions. The first test will be early in the new year, when Theresa May has promised to announce more details about the Article 50 negotiations. By now, May is alone among key ministers in not having said anything about what Brexit means for the environment, even though it is one of the most affected areas of policy. She needs to make clear that the health of our environment is a priority in the negotiations, and that enhanced environmental cooperation will be an essential pillar of our future relationships with the EU and other countries. The second test will be the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ – the government’s handling of the fiendishly complicated task of transposing not just legislation, but the other trappings of environmental governance mentioned above.

Six months on from the referendum, there’s a lot of work for environmentalists to do. At Greener UK, we’re rolling up our sleeves.

In parliament, environmentalists still seem like a minority

2701153820_0f29d46bf4_b.jpgThis post is by Richard Benwell, head of government affairs at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust.

In his blog for Green Alliance last week, Lord Deben argued that environmentalists must mature into the mainstream, set aside fringe tactics and speak with a constructive voice. He is surely right that we need to offer credible solutions to the threats of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.  Read more

A new opportunity to protect our environment as we leave the EU

greeneruk_twitter_3This post is by Kit Malthouse MP. It first appeared on Conservative Home.

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence…”  Wallace Stegner

More often than not, politics is highly predictable. In Westminster, the fault lines in a debate are usually identifiable before even a word is uttered. Parties try to define themselves by creating these fire breaks – “clear blue water”; “weaponise the NHS” –  claiming particular territory for their exclusive use: “We are the party of [*insert issue here*]. And you’re not.”

Protecting our environment is important to politicians and the public
There is, though, one policy area in which every politician feels that sense of ownership: something seems to come over most MPs when they talk about nature. Atavistic passions are unleashed, poetic phrases composed and fierce arguments ensue about who owns this particular mountain top.

The debate in the country as a whole is not much different. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that we have a huge number of charities and NGOs devoted to protecting, enhancing and developing our environment in this country. From the National Trust and dozens of wildlife trusts, to the RSPB and the Wildfowl and Wetland Trust (WWT), to Client Earth and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, there are literally dozens and dozens of organisations focused on this one policy area.

Brexit is an environmental opportunity
So when they all came together and declared that Brexit is an environmental opportunity, it turned a lot of heads. So many heads in fact, that over 150 MPs from all parties, including me, have now signed the “Greener UK Pledge for the Environment”.

Those who did so have pledged to pressure the government to repurpose and reenergise our environmental protections as we leave the EU, using the opportunity to reaffirm our global leadership on the environment and strengthen the protection of wild places and wildlife, and making British biodiversity an urgent priority. We want to pass on a thriving natural world on land and at sea, clean air and water, communities connected to nature, and a sustainable economy.

We must recognise that we have a debt to past generations and a duty to those to come, and our natural treasures are evidence of that connection and contract. If we lose them, life will be less rich, our experience of the world a little bit more desolate, and our society more disconnected from itself. If we become the kind of nation that takes no notice of such things, or that shrugs and moves on, no summer’s bloom will lie ahead. To do so would be to accept a Britain where we had broken cleanly with our natural heritage, and we would be diminished.

I’m certain Brexit will yield many prizes, and chief amongst them must be taking back control of our own mountains, beaches, moors and marshes. From our ancient forests to our parks and gardens, we truly live in a green and pleasant land. There is already significant support across both Houses of Parliament for an agenda that doesn’t just seek to protect this but aims actively to restore our natural world. At these moments of unity, we can achieve real change and Brexit surely gives us the chance to make it happen.

More MPs are signing the Pledge for the Environment every day.

If you are an MP, and are interested in signing, please email: mp@environmentpledge.org.uk

It’s time for environmentalists to stop behaving like they’re in the minority

protest_ron-f_flickr-creative-commonsThis post is by Lord Deben chairman of the Committee on Climate Change.

We environmentalists must stop behaving as if we are perpetually in a minority. When the revolution has actually occurred we can’t go on as if the ancien regime hasn’t fallen. We have grown used to our role of opposing, cajoling, and shaming, but we seem much more uncomfortable in becoming part of mainstream thought. Read more

Brexit will be a pivotal moment for the UK’s environment

GreenerUK_Twitter_1.jpgOn 7 December, MPs voted to support the government’s plan to start formal Brexit talks by the end of March next year. As the UK edges closer to leaving the European Union, the government now faces a critical choice on the future of our environment protections.

An estimated 80 per cent of the UK’s environmental legislation was developed with Europe, so the UK’s vote to leave the EU inevitably places a question mark over nearly all of our environmental protections. From policies that ensure our air and water are clean and protect our special wildlife, to those that keep us safe from exposure to toxic chemicals at work, a place will be needed for these protections in the UK’s future policy framework outside the EU.

We are, therefore, at a pivotal moment. If we get it wrong, we could see by far the biggest setback yet for the future well-being of our environment and all of us that benefit from it. But if we get it right, we can avoid that, improve on the current protections and begin to restore and even enhance our natural world.

Making sure we get it right
The public want the government to get it right. A recent YouGov poll has revealed that four in every five British adults think we should have the same or stronger environmental protection after we leave the EU.

That’s why we have come together with 12 of the UK’s other major environmental organisations, in a collaboration the UK has never seen before. The new coalition, Greener UK, which includes organisations with a combined membership of 7.9 million, will be watching the Great Repeal Bill very closely to make sure it doesn’t open up any gaps in current environmental protections and, as new legislation is formed, we will be looking for ways to build on them.

This year’s State of Nature report revealed the insidious and alarming loss of biodiversity in this country: 15 per cent of our native species are under threat of extinction, and 53 per cent are in decline. And 2016, for all its other surprises, has also been the year to break climate records and pass a tipping point for atmospheric carbon. So this is a window of opportunity we cannot miss.

We’re not alone in this belief: 145 MPs from across the political spectrum and across the UK have so far signed Greener UK’s Pledge for the Environment, committing to support the UK in becoming a world leader on the environment.

Outside of the Brexit debate, this government has shown some early signs of leadership in this area: ratifying the Paris climate agreement and making global commitments on marine protection. But although there have been some welcome warm words from Brexit minister Robin Walker about putting Britain “at the vanguard of tackling global environmental challenges”, the government is yet to say what leaving the EU will mean for this. On the other hand, Secretary of State David Davis has promised “firmly and unequivocally” that employment rights will not be eroded during Brexit. We urgently need an equivalent, explicit reassurance for the environment.

The need for strong government commitment
Now is the time for the prime minister to respond to what four in every five people and 145 MPs are saying and state her commitment to maintaining the UK’s environmental protections. The newly promised Brexit plan is the ideal opportunity to do this.

And, while we should continue to collaborate with our European neighbours where there’s a clear mutual interest and environmental benefit, we should also establish world class environmental governance here in the UK. Those looking back at the end of this century will judge our leaders now by how they chose to respond at this crucial turning point.

More MPs are signing the Pledge for the Environment every day.

If you are an MP, and are interested in signing, please email: mp@environmentpledge.org.uk

Dispatch from Marrakech: determination to succeed, despite shadows on the horizon

marrakech72The UN climate talks in Marrakech (known as COP22) have been buzzing for the past week, but there seems to be a determination that the shock US election victory of Donald Trump should not derail the Paris climate agreement.

Walking past the huge US pavilion in the climate village it is difficult to imagine that, next year, the US will not be participating. Read more

Why the Treasury should go for low carbon infrastructure, regardless of climate change

9167178823_5ab2056b2a_kThis post first appeared as a Huffington Post Blog.

It was George Osborne who, festooned with hard hat and high vis, proclaimed that ‘we are the builders.’ He looked a bit silly, but his message was serious. Building things is what real people do; it’s where real economic growth happens; and it’s a real investment in our shared future. Osborne invented the line, but it is Theresa May who is doing the building. As the BBC’s business editor put it, “from beating ourselves up for not being able to build anything, the UK is suddenly building everything.” Well, almost everything. Read more

California dreaming? Environmental lessons for Brexit Britain from the ‘left coast’

Bixby Creek Bridge on Highway #1 at the US West Coast traveling south to Los AngelesJohn Steinbeck described the California I grew up in as ‘a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.’ The golden state has always loomed large in the imagination but, in my early years, much of the stink and quality of light was literal: my dad, a Los Angeles native, used to joke that he didn’t trust air he couldn’t see. That’s how bad the air pollution was.

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