In post-Brexit trade plans it’s all talk and no action on the environment

post Brexit trade smallThis post is by Hatti Owens, ClientEarth UK environment lawyer

From the UK’s global carbon footprint to the quality of the products we import, trade deals have real world impacts on the environment. How the UK decides its future trade policy outside the protection of the European Union is of real importance.

With some politicians and groups – such as the Institute for Economic Affairs – calling for deregulation, environmentalists might, therefore, take heart from the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, which states that “environmental sustainability should be at the very heart of global production and trade”.

It’s a lovely sentiment, but unfortunately yet to be borne out by reality. Read more

What can national government learn from the Greater Manchester Green Summit?

manchester small“Manchester is the place where people do things,” said Edward Abbott Parry, judge of Manchester County Court. “Don’t talk about what you are going to do, do it. That is the Manchester habit.” A love of Manchester and its new city region (including towns like Wigan, Oldham and Bolton) was on full display at the second annual Greater Manchester Authority Green Summit earlier this month. I don’t claim Manchester as my home town (I’m a ‘Woolyback’, a non-scouse Merseysider) but I did go to University there, lived there in my early twenties and have a deep love of the city.

As Judge Parry says, it’s a place where things happen. And that can’t be said of all political hubs at the moment. Despite the young climate strikers in Parliament Square and Extinction Rebellion shutting down roads (and putting on an interesting show in the Commons), there has been little parliamentary response. The business of the UK parliament has been brought to a halt by the yoke of Brexit.

So how refreshing it was to attend an event with energy, brimming with ideas and unashamedly facing the future, launching Greater Manchester’s five year plan for the environment up to 2024. I left inspired but concerned about how this could be replicated in other regions and at a national level. Here are some of the learning points I took away:

Start with a clear pathway
Climate strikers and the poet Lemn Sissay, both intimidating in their eloquence, opened the summit, but it was Alex Ganotis, leader of Stockport Council and head of the Green City Region, that showed real bravery, coming on stage to present a technical and robust carbon reduction plan to a hall of 2,000 people before many had even had a coffee. Greater Manchester wants to be carbon neutral by 2038 and has used the Tyndall Centre to set out a clear pathway for its carbon reductions. Admittedly, all the policy isn’t in place yet but the gaps have been identified with what needs to be done.

Although the UK government has a clear pathway with its climate budgets covering 2023-32, it does not currently have the policies to meet them. Green Alliance has previously proposed four straightforward solutions.

Link to other strategies
Alex Ganotis was clear that the five year plan for the environment could not be delivered in a silo. Instead, it is implicit that this decarbonisation strategy has to be linked to other Greater Manchester plans: the clean air plan, the waste plan, the natural capital plan and the spatial framework, as well as being a central plank of the overarching vision for the city region.

This approach is not replicated at Westminster. Whilst BEIS continues to be a champion for a clean growth economy, major players who will have to act to get us there, such as the Department for Transport and the Ministry for Housing, Community and Local Government, continue to be completely disengaged on the issue.

Get business buy-in
The Green Summit was filled with businesses and at the ‘innovation zone’, hosted by the North West Business Leadership Team and the Business Growth Hub, hours were spent identifying roles for business in achieving the vision. Some concerns remain regarding the policy gaps that still exist with businesses asking for more long term certainty, but the recognition that nothing could be achieved without the business community onside was core to all the discussions.

Give it figurehead leadership
Whilst Alex Ganotis received recognition for the five year plan, the summit was very much metro mayor Andy Burnham’s day, darting from zone to zone to speak to different audiences. Although not known for his green credentials when an MP, he seems to have recognised that the future of Greater Manchester is green. Leading an area of ten local authorities, and an accompanying budget, means he has some punch (though perhaps not enough) to enact real change on the ground.

At the national level, the climate spokespeople of both the Conservative and Labour parties seem to be sidelined. Claire Perry remains a climate champion within the government but, even though she attends cabinet, she is not a fully-fledged member. And BEIS Secretary of State Greg Clark remains aloof on climate. There has been some recognition by Number 10 that the climate crisis and environmental decline are becoming increasingly important and relevant to future governance but there is no real energy to deal with it.

Have a good narrative
Manchester had the country’s first passenger railway; it was the birthplace of the suffragette movement; it invented the computer. Even if you didn’t know these claims at the start of the day you wouldn’t forget them afterwards, having constantly been reminded. Mancunians are proud of their history and their heritage and that’s exactly how this strategy was presented.

Not only does a clean growth economy benefit the city. As the city that introduced the first industrial revolution to the world, Manchester sees its responsibility at the spearhead of solutions to the problems it has subsequently caused. A just transition is vital to this. It was made clear that, to be successful, the plan had to be equitable at a local and global level. It aims to be locally inclusive, ensuring policies do not disproportionately impact the poorest on society, whilst also being globally just, recognising the need to act urgently to protect those around the world most affected by climate change.

Despite being positive overall, there are still big questions to be answered if the mayor is to deliver on his vision. City regions are still limited by the powers they actually have and the money to implement what they want to do. Many of the intended actions rely on the UK government granting more powers or providing more funding. Likewise, more explanation is needed for those policies that rely on behaviour change, such as the idea that Mancunians should be more responsible consumers.

The summit didn’t get much coverage in national media last week but I guess that doesn’t matter much if the plan is not to talk about it but just to do it.

[Image: Manchester city. Courtesy of Filip Patock via Flickr]

What is Britain’s place in the world? Climate resilience and soft power

green future smallThis is not a story about Brexit. Outside the febrile corridors of Westminster, the 99.1% of the global population that isn’t British is only occasionally perplexed by the quixotic story of Brexit. Instead, the British story in the world continues to be told by its network of embassies and governmental organisations, like Ordnance Survey, the BBC, the Met Office and the NHS. What may surprise many is to learn that a central part of the UK’s story about its place in the world is its role in addressing climate change.

I know this because I had the opportunity to speak at a conference for young leaders in South Africa, last month, on climate resilience, hosted by Wilton Park and the Foreign Office in partnership with the Africa Climate Reality Project. It was set up following the prime minister’s commitment, last September, to lead international efforts on climate resilience for the UN Climate Summit in 2019. Theresa May’s decision for the UK to lead in spite of the chaos of British political life speaks to a national mission which has remained unchanged through a dozen governments and the greatest political crisis in a generation.

This constancy is essential to the UK’s much vaunted soft power, as is the campaigning mission it embodies. I saw why in person: my fellow conference participants were all under 40 and came from 11 countries across Africa. For them, climate change is happening right now. In Zimbabwe, 80 per cent of rural people depend on agriculture fed by increasingly unreliable rains. In Kenya, unpredictable new storm patterns threaten the lives of people who used to know when it was safe to head out to fish. In South Africa, Namibia and Botswana regional climate dynamics double global temperature rises, meaning that these countries are living in a two degrees world already, reducing their people’s ability to do physical work (including farming), and are on track to hit at least four degrees of warming, a level which will see lethal peak summer temperatures for a population roughly equal to that of the UK. During the conference, Cyclone Idai reached land in Mozambique, destroying 90 per cent of the buildings in Beira and spreading as yet untold misery.

Ranged against this are a set of British climate resilience partners: BBC Media Action is working out how best to communicate weather risk to rural people to enable them to move when necessary. The Met Office is helping national weather agencies to forecast more accurately and meaningfully. Ordnance Survey is helping planners across Africa to map flood risk. The NHS is lending its expertise in disaster mortality risk reduction. These partnerships are creating real climate resilience today.

All this effort, some funded as part of the UK’s commitment to overseas development aid, bolsters the UK’s credibility in international climate negotiations. It also has a human dimension: just as the fact that one in four heads of state were educated in the UK means these leaders will have fond memories of the UK, the real improvements these interventions make to people’s lives across the world, in the face of climate disruption, generates soft power. As these countries prosper in spite of environmental disruption, they will remember the UK for its role in stopping, and adapting to, climate change.

This matters. I was struck by the fact that I, still somewhat under 40, have grown up in societies in which the baby boom generation dominated politics. Their concerns and beliefs have shaped the art of the politically possible. But, in the room with 40 young African leaders, I realised that these are the new baby boom. They will shape the politics of Africa for the next 40 years. And they will do so in the context of a rapidly changing climate.

The UK has started to work with them to co-create climate resilience, but this has to go beyond just disaster relief and into clean growth. This was the core of my argument at the conference, which I’ll flesh out in a blog to follow. The take home message, though, viewed from outside the UK, is that Britain’s place in the world is being defined by its approach to climate change. If there is to be a global Britain, it will be green.

In a Brexit compromise, MPs must consider what’s best for the environment

no deal smallThe prime minister’s announcement that she will work with the opposition to try to reach a compromise on Brexit is very welcome. Both sides need to be flexible. And when MPs get to vote again, they must show a greater willingness to compromise.

Brexit means Brexit, but we still do not know what Brexit means. If we are to find out, MPs must stop asking themselves, ‘what is the best outcome from my point of view?’ and ask instead, ‘what outcomes can I live with?’ Look down the list of how MPs voted on Monday and you will see some of the brightest and best from all parties, including some who care deeply about the environment, who made the best the enemy of the not-wholly-unacceptable. And the not-wholly-unacceptable is probably the best most of us can hope for now, given the pickle we are in.

Brexit is about many things, above all the big question of what sort of country we want to be. It is about culture, identity, nationhood, sovereignty, democracy, migration, citizenship and citizens’ rights, the economy, labour standards, food and product safety, trade, fishing, farming and much more. But it is also about the environment. What follows is a brief canter, from an environmental perspective, through the main options MPs will be talking about in the coming days. These are my personal views, drawing on analysis by Greener UK.

No to no deal
First, no deal must be avoided. It carries significant risks for farming, upland farming in particular; landscape and air quality, as lorries queue for miles around our major ports (“Kent, sir — everybody knows Kent — apples, cherries, hops,” …and a huge car park); chemical safety; environmental governance; clean energy; and much else. In the longer term, as Siemens UK’s chief executive Juergen Maier has pointed out, the loss of faith in the UK as a functional polity threatens our ability to forge a low carbon, high tech economic future. One of the many depressing things about Brexit is the insouciance with which some sensible and well-meaning people (as well as some who are rather less sensible) downplay the dangers of no deal.

The prime minister’s deal has promising language on the environment. The backstop section of the Withdrawal Agreement includes a mutual commitment to non-regression in most areas of environmental law. The accompanying Political Declaration says the future relationship will build on the Withdrawal Agreement. This is positive but, as a whole, the declaration is too vague. It needs to be underpinned by much stronger domestic enforcement. The UK government’s proposals on environmental enforcement in England (which could apply to Northern Ireland) fall short of the requirements set out in the Withdrawal Agreement. The Scottish and Welsh governments’ proposals lack detail.

What the deal choices mean for the environment
Greener UK has set out how the Political Declaration can be improved. Not least, it needs to say explicitly that one of the key purposes of the future relationship is to ensure a high level of environmental protection. If Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn take a version of the current deal back to the Commons, changes along these lines are essential. We also want the government to commit to report on changes to EU environmental law and give parliament the right, at the very least, to keep pace with them.

But it is unlikely that the prime minister will be around to lead the next stage of negotiations and some of her would be successors have made clear that they would adopt a radically different set of negotiating priorities. Boris Johnson, for instance, wants a Canada (or Korea or Mongolia) style free trade agreement with the EU; the UK would diverge from EU standards and potentially pivot towards US standards as the price of reaching a US-UK trade deal. So small improvements to the Political Declaration now cannot guarantee a future government’s commitments to high standards.

A customs union or ‘Norway-plus’ (‘Common Market 2.0’) relationship have both been proposed as ways to a softer Brexit, with fewer risks of divergence from high EU standards. A customs union would enable goods in the low carbon supply chain to travel freely within the EU, making decarbonisation more cost effective.

A Norway-plus agreement would be a closer form of UK-EU co-operation, requiring continued alignment with EU standards and enabling participation in EU agencies and programmes such as REACH, the Emissions Trading System and Natura 2000. The UK would be able to develop independent agriculture and fisheries policies, and we could decide to abide by the Birds and Habitats Directives. However, the UK would become a ‘rule taker’ from the EU, with a significant impact on citizens’ rights to participate in environmental decision-making.

The upsides and downsides of staying
Requiring a confirmatory public vote on any outcome gives the option of remaining in the EU. For many environmentalists, this seems obviously desirable. In fact, there are downsides, not least a loss of the energy that has come with having to decide our own environmental policies, rather than leaving them to protracted negotiations with 27 other countries. We would also remain in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and Commons Fisheries Policy, though it is worth noting that the CAP is being reformed to allow member states more scope to develop their own policies.

More positively, within the EU, the UK would benefit from strong environmental governance and would participate in EU agencies and programmes with full voting rights. We would be able to influence trade negotiations and global discussions on issues such as climate change.

MPs get little sympathy, but most are having a rotten time at present. Brexit is messy. There are few wholly good outcomes available. Compromise is the order of the day, often with a side order of eating one’s words or reneging on manifesto commitments. But as well as asking themselves what is best for business or trade or workers’ rights, I hope MPs will also consider what is best (or least bad) for the environment. A soft Brexit or no Brexit look like the least risky options, followed by the prime minister’s deal. A Canada-style trade arrangement carries great risks. But worst of all would be no deal

 

 

 

How an award winning map is connecting more people with nature

foraging smallThis post is by Anita Roy, a member of Transition Town Wellington.

It might not look like much: a hand drawn map of a small town in Somerset, folded down small enough to fit in your pocket. The fields and woods are shaded green and dotted with little round stickers showing where to find apple trees and herbs, hazelnuts and redcurrant bushes.

There are two maps of Wellington you can pick up in the tourist office: one, showing shops and cafes, car parks and pubs: the town’s economy; the other, Transition Town Wellington’s foraging map: its ecology. On it are highlighted the four community orchards, the fruit bushes and herb beds, which have been created and tended for everyone to access, by this energetic and public-spirited environmental group.

Transition Town Wellington (TTW) has been in existence for more than a decade, working on a variety of issues from sustainable energy to transport surveys. The group promotes organic gardening and supports local food growers, as well as organising litter picks, film shows, a repair café and activities for children. It recently made news by winning The Climate Coalition’s ‘Green Heart Hero’ award for most inspirational community project, pipping the Somerset Wildlife Trust and the local Women’s Institute chapter to the post.

But it was the foraging map, created by the sustainable food group’s leader, Helen Gillingham, that helped put TTW, as it were, on the map. MP for Taunton Deane, Rebecca Pow, nominated the group for the award, saying “Like many of my constituents, I love to get out and about picking nature’s free fruits and this map is incredibly helpful.”

The Transition Town movement first started in 2006, with Rob Hopkins and his team in Totnes, Devon. How do we act now, he asked, to build communities resilient enough to withstand the twin horrors of peak oil and climate change? If we wait for governments to act, it will be too little, too late; if we act as individuals it will be too little; but if we pull together as communities, there is the possibility of genuine change. “The time for seeing globalisation as an invincible and unassailable behemoth, or localisation as some kind of lifestyle choice, is over,” he wrote in the Transition Handbook, a book that was prescient when it was published in 2008, and is more relevant than ever today.

Protests have an important place, as the impact of recent Extinction Rebellion events and school climate strikes have shown, but taking positive action in one’s local community connects and energises people, and can be felt at a personal level. It can change people’s minds, because it changes their daily life.

Foraging for hope
Richard Mabey, author of the seminal Food for Free and ‘father’ of modern foraging, is realistic in assessing its impact on our food security. “Foraging in our culture is a middle-class hobby,” he says in an interview with The Independent newspaper, “It’s basically a load of largely middle-class foodies and ruralists going out and getting a romantic kick out of this very sensual engagement with nature.”

Although he says that he’s not deriding the fact, I think he overlooks the more profound impact it can have. According to the charity Mind, approximately one in four people in the UK will experience some mental health issues in a year, the majority associated with anxiety and depression. A report commissioned by Natural England in 2016 confirmed what most of us would expect: that what it terms ‘green care interventions’ – such as environmental conservation, and social and therapeutic horticulture – can have a significant positive impact on mental health. Getting close to the soil, and in touch with nature and natural processes can help reduce anxiety and depression, and can help alleviate symptoms associated with dementia. Not only that, but it brings about “a greatly increased level of social contact and inclusion; as well as a sense of belonging and personal achievement.”

In all of its activities, but perhaps most of all with the foraging map, Transition Town Wellington is bringing people outside, and closer to nature. For children, especially, seeing food growing – berries that you can actually pick and eat, plants whose leaves can end up on your plate – is a revelation. It may not change your daily diet much, but it does change how you think about what you eat, and where that comes from.

It is this awareness that is encouraging people to think about how their food is transported and under what conditions it is grown, and by whom. Walking around the town, aided by the foraging map, parents, children and older people are re-learning how to judge when something is ripe, how it is faring and if the plant or tree needs to be cared for. Not only that, but it shows how all other life-forms – the birds, bees, insects and other wildlife – are dependent upon our green spaces. Our stewardship of our open spaces is not only in our own interest, but that of all the living things that make up our ecosystem at this increasingly perilous time.

Anita Roy is a freelance writer with an MA in Travel and Nature Writing from Bath Spa University. Her writing can be found at anitaroy.net

 [Image: Helen Gillingham working on the foraging map]

 

What would ‘Norway’ mean for nature laws?

RSPB smallThis post is by Donal McCarthy, senior policy officer at the RSPB.

On Monday night, MPs approved a motion providing parliament with the chance to hold a series of indicative votes on alternatives to the current Brexit deal. One of the alternative options that is being promoted by a cross-party grouping of MPs is a ‘Norway-style’ agreement (also known as ‘Norway Plus’ or ‘Common Market 2.0’).

This option would see the UK negotiate a future relationship with the EU similar to that enjoyed by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, the three members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) that participate in the EU single market under the terms of the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement. But what might this mean for the laws governing species and habitat protection across the UK?

Dynamic alignment with most EU environmental standards
The preamble to the EEA Agreement sets out a commitment “to preserve, protect and improve the quality of the environment” and to uphold the EU’s core environmental principles. The three EEA-EFTA states are required to comply with the majority of EU environmental rules, as listed in Annex XX. The EEA Agreement is also dynamic, meaning that new or revised EU legislation that is ‘EEA-relevant’ must be incorporated into the related annexes and protocols.

As is the case for EU member states, the EEA-EFTA states are free to develop more ambitious environmental policies than the EU if they so choose. In other words, the agreement acts as a floor rather than a ceiling for the parties’ domestic environmental ambitions.

Compared to the current Brexit deal, a ‘Norway-style’ agreement would potentially provide stronger guarantees that environmental standards will not be weakened after Brexit. As well as locking the UK into most existing EU environmental legislation, a ‘Norway-style’ agreement would also require the UK to update its domestic statute book so as to mirror future changes in relevant EU laws and standards. The UK would still be able to contribute to the EU legislative process but would no longer be formally represented in the EU institutions and so would have a diminished role in the development of new EU laws relative to the EU member states.

More robust oversight and enforcement
EEA-EFTA state compliance is monitored by the EFTA Surveillance Authority and enforced by the EFTA Court. These bodies perform similar functions to those carried out by the European Commission and European Court of Justice (ECJ) in relation to EU member state compliance. In fact, except for the important lack of a power to impose fines, the EFTA Court has similar enforcement powers to the ECJ.

Overall, the EEA Agreement has stronger mechanisms for enforcement than any standard free trade deal. It is therefore expected that enforcement of environmental standards would be more rigorous under a ‘Norway-style’ arrangement than under the current Brexit deal, which relies heavily on the robustness of the UK’s new domestic arrangements for securing compliance with environmental standards. As things stand, the UK government’s proposals for environmental governance reform fall considerably short of the effectiveness of current EU derived systems.

Potential gaps in coverage
Although most EU environmental legislation is incorporated into the EEA Agreement, there are some notable gaps, including the EU’s nature conservation rules (although there are strong arguments for adding them). This means that the EEA-EFTA states do not currently have to comply with the Birds Directive or the Habitats Directive, two key pieces of EU legislation that are considered to be the driving force for conservation across Europe. More than 100 species and 75 habitat types listed under these directives currently occur in the UK.

There is a risk that we could see a  roll-back of the protections these directives currently provide if they are not covered by the EU-UK future relationship. At the very least, there is a risk that future governments across the UK might opt for greater flexibility on certain elements of this legislation, such as relaxing the protection afforded to Natura 2000 sites or removing certain species from the lists requiring strict protection. In such a scenario, we could very quickly see damaging divergence across the four UK nations and between Ireland and Northern Ireland as well.

Of course, international biodiversity commitments, notably the Bern Convention, would continue to apply to the UK, but these do not offer anywhere near the same level of protection. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that numbers of certain key species are significantly higher and trends significantly more positive in countries covered by the EU’s nature legislation compared to those such as Norway that are merely bound by the Bern Convention.

Similarly for habitats, it has been argued that Norway’s protected area network does not sufficiently cover all relevant habitat types, with the proportion of Norway’s forests that are fully protected comparing unfavourably with  its closest EU neighbours (Sweden and Finland).

EU is likely to insist on safeguards for nature
Right from the start of the Brexit process, the EU has expressed a degree of concern that the UK might seek to undercut its social and environmental standards post-Brexit in an attempt to gain a competitive economic advantage. Given that the UK economy is over five times bigger than the combined size of the three EEA-EFTA economies, such concerns are unlikely to diminish in a scenario in which the UK seeks to negotiate continued access to the EU single market via a ‘Norway-style’ deal. The EU will also be keen to avoid a situation in which the UK is perceived to gain additional flexibility over the implementation of key environmental rules whilst also retaining the benefits associated with EU single market access.

In January 2018, the European Commission set out its initial thinking on this issue, signalling that nature conservation should be considered for inclusion in the list of key areas of environmental policy where it would be necessary to secure a ‘level playing field’ in the EU-UK future relationship. Then, in November 2018, the draft Withdrawal Agreement was endorsed by the European Council, committing the EU and the UK to maintaining existing levels of environmental protection in areas including nature and biodiversity conservation post-Brexit.

Although these commitments are contained within the Ireland/Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ and relate to non-regression, as opposed to regulatory alignment, their real significance is that they probably represent the baseline model for the treatment of environment and ‘level playing field’ issues that the EU is likely to accept under any form of future trade agreement with the UK. Indeed, the accompanying Political Declaration calls for a set of commitments in the future trade relationship that “build on” those in the Withdrawal Agreement.

As MPs debate these issues in the coming days, they should feel reasonably confident that a ‘Norway-style’ future relationship has the potential to deliver some significant environmental improvements over the current Brexit deal, including for nature.

Biodiversity loss is more than an environmental problem, it is a development, economic, social and moral issue

biodiversity smallThis post is by Professor Sir Robert T Watson FRS, strategic director of the Tyndall Centre and chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The IPBES recently published four landmark regional assessment reports of biodiversity (ie genes, species and ecosystems). There is one each for the Americas, Africa, Europe and Central Asia, and Asia and the Pacific, and an assessment of land degradation and restoration.  The findings of these assessments are based on thousands of scientific reports, as well as indigenous and local knowledge. They clearly demonstrate that biodiversity is as much a development, economic, social and moral issue as an environmental issue. Read more

« Older Entries