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Archive for July 2016

Brexit and the environment

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What does Brexit mean for the environment?  In the last week or so much has been written about possible impacts.

First, the politics, probably the richest vein.  Sara Stefanini provides a nice summary of the political aspects of the environmental question, noting that many commentators pointed out that the politicos that led the Brexit charge are also those who are likely to “support a bonfire of anti-pollution protections”, and that “climate change-denying wing of the Conservative Party will be strengthened by this vote.”

George Monbiot is no great fan of the EU.  Says the Guardian columnist,

The European Union is a festering cesspool of undue influence and opaque lobbying. Prompted at first by the tobacco industry, the European commission is slowly dismantling, through what it calls its “better regulation agenda”, many of the hard-won laws that protect our health, working conditions and wildlife. Once they are torn down, corporate power will be locked in place through the TTIP – the transatlantic trade and investment partnership – it is negotiating with the United States.

By comparison with the British system, however, this noxious sewer is a crystal spring. Every stream of corporate effluent with which the EU poisons political life has a more malodorous counterpart in the UK. The new Deregulation Act, a meta-law of astonishing scope, scarcely known and scarcely debated, insists that all regulators must now “have regard to the desirability of promoting economic growth”. Rare wildlife, wheelchair ramps, speed limits, children’s lungs: all must establish their contribution to GDP. What else, after all, are they for?

Okay, so that’s an example for the politics (other interesting views by Andrew Nikiforuk, Glenn Greenwald, Stephen Collins, Mohamed El-Erian, Joanna Slater, or Noah Smith, should really be read for a good overview of the political side, especially with respect to globalisation).  But what is the impact, in practice?  What about the climate, for instance?

Greenpeace’s Emma Howard said that it could delay international action on climate change:

The UK is still is expected to ratify the Paris Agreement as part of the EU bloc, but some are worried that delays caused by a parliamentary backlog could give right wing leaders the opportunity to dissemble it. This is of particular concern given that Donald Trump has promised to quit the agreement if he is elected in November.

Also, the UK (or England) may not sign up to new pending legislation to limit air pollution across Europe.  But at the same time, the expansion of Heathrow airport (and its emissions) may be on hold. The carbon price has fallen, and the outlook for green energy investments is negative, too, due to the uncertainty that the vote has caused; whether this signals a long-term trend is not clear.

Looking for a silver (or is it green?) lining, Michael Le Page writes in New Scientist that there could be positive developments.  For instance, the UK has tried, at times successfully, to water down EU regulations, and it would lose this ability.  It’s worth quoting at length:

The biggest worry for environmentalists is that, on leaving the EU, the UK will rip up a host of laws covering everything from air pollution and wildlife conservation to recycling. Three such laws, including a directive that bans the dumping of raw sewage into waters where people swim, will definitely be lost if the UK invokes article 50.

But plenty of British MPs and businesses want the UK to remain in the single market. If the UK had a new arrangement like Norway’s, it would still be bound by almost all EU laws, but would no longer have any say in them. This might sound like a bad thing, but in recent years, the UK has blocked or watered down many EU environmental regulations. For instance, David Cameron blocked an attempt to introduce rules to stop frackers polluting the environment or triggering too many earthquakes. Future EU environment laws may be stronger if the UK has no say.

Le Page also mentions that scrapping the European Common Agricultural Plan could benefit wildlife; as it is, farmers get subsidies to keep poor land in production, land that could otherwise return to wilderness.  Like Howard, Le Page also thinks that the carbon trading system will be negatively affected – but this could the spur to fix the system.  (Ironically, the current, disfunctional, system owes much to British influence.)

Brexit would also affect labour mobility – including that of environmental scientists and researchers.  Some joint funded programs may also be threatened.  Daniel Cressey and Alison Abbott, writing in Nature, give an overview:

Politicians campaigning for a UK divorced from the EU had pledged before the vote that universities and scientists in the country would not lose out. But immediate concerns for researchers revolve around funding: UK universities currently get around 16% of their research funding, and 15% of their staff, from the EU.

Researchers have already begun to call for the UK to maintain science funding and to welcome researchers from abroad…Julia Goodfellow, president of the umbrella group Universities UK, which had campaigned against a leave vote, said that her group’s “first priority” would be to try to convince the government that EU staff and students should be allowed to continue studying in the country.

Alissa de Carbonnel and Nina Chestney, writing in Planet Ark, mention that it is unlikely that Britain will pull out of the Paris climate accord.  The main problem, though, is the uncertainty caused by the vote, and the distraction it creates, putting the accord at a lower priority.  (So far, only France and Hungary have ratified the accord in the EU.)

Energy politics are taking a direct hit, and there has been a flurry of articles.  On the hot seat is Britain’s proposed new (and costly) nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point (to be funded largely by EDF, a French consortium).  Conversely, the chief of RenewablesUK, Hugh McNeal, thinks that Brexit will provide a boost for on-shore wind power.  But the proposed underwater electrical links between Britain, Norway, and France may now be at risk with Brexit, which may reduce the resilience of the European grid.

Brexit may have a negative impact on fisheries, too, if a free-for-all ensues.  Some Leave voters from Cornwall expect to benefit from the removal of EU quotas. This is unlikely to happen (see why here, here and here), but looking at the issue highlights some of the motivations of the Brexiters.  A primer on fisheries by BetterOffOut, a leading Leave group, states that:

This [the current situation] highlights the increasing importance of supporting local fishermen operating smaller boats – the very sector that is currently being damaged by EU legislation and regulations.

Even garbage is affected.   The solid waste industry is afraid that the uncertainty will put their concerns at the bottom of the pile. But “regardless of EU membership there is huge scope for the waste and recycling sector to do things better and for the UK to improve its resource efficiency”, said Jacob Hayler of ESA.

I will leave the final quote to International Solid Waste Association president David Newman.  He is talking about, yes, garbage, but he could be speaking for every environmental sector:

In waste and environmental management, policies matter a lot. The industry is driven by regulations, government intervention, government mandated taxation, targets, fines, penalties, enforcement.

Only governments can mandate policies that protect the environment of a nation. Whilst a local council can mandate them, its neighbours may not. So when governments join together collectively and mandate the sort of environmental policies we have enjoyed as citizens over the last 40 years in Europe, it’s a big deal for the well being of hundreds of millions of people.

But when a government leaves this collective bargaining and can decide not to implement such policies, it is a big deal negatively for that population. This may be the case of the UK.

Funny, isn’t it?  In environmental circles, we tend to be very wary of large international agreements, and fear that the environment may be sacrified to business interests – with good reason.  Yet, the Brexit case, in the negative, and the recent NAFTA development at the Three Amigos summit, in the positive, show that this need not always be so.


Written by enviropaul

July 3, 2016 at 2:51 pm