Well it’s been a pretty significant few weeks. Nine months after the vote on EU membership, the war of words is over and the formal exit proceedings have started. It’s quite the moment for reflection, when you realise just how many of us were born into Britain the European Union member state – or were too young in 1973 to remember what came before.
(Published first on Business Green, 7 April, 2017)
But actually, what’s much more important now is the job ahead of us – to focus on what we need to keep and what we must worry about losing as we leave the EU. The past fortnight gave us our first proper clues as to what next – with the PM’s letter to Donald Tusk and the white paper on the legislation to repeal EU law and transpose the ‘acquis communautaire’ onto the UK statute books.
Encouraging signs include the line in the white paper that: “the government is committed to ensuring that we become the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it”.
Impacts on wildlife
Recent polling suggested that when it comes to climate change, 80 per cent of British people worry about the impacts on our nature and wildlife above all else. They’re right to: the 2016 State of Nature report showed that over half of our species are in decline, with a tenth of them at risk of disappearing from the UK altogether.
Over the years that we’ve been a member of the EU, we’ve implemented far-reaching protections to slow that decline and manage and reduce risks to wildlife and nature. We’ve done that with our European partners, as a part of the EU – these standards aren’t imposed on us; they reflect that huge public concern for protection of wildlife in the UK. So all of the hard work that led to protections for species, their habitats and protected areas of nature – both on and around our shores – has to be a huge priority for us in terms of bringing EU rules into UK law.
It’s not all risk, though. There are opportunities for us from Brexit.
It’s hard to believe that anyone would set out to design the common agricultural policy (CAP) as it is now – paying some farmers to maintain bare, over-farmed, un-wooded land that provides no sort of home for nature, diminishes UK carbon sinks, and fails to build natural flood defences. Well, if we’re really taking back control, then the opportunity to re-cast support for farmers as something that can make a huge contribution to that commitment to future generations is one we should seize.
Climate and energy
On the climate and energy side of things, there seems less risk to our efforts in the UK. We have, as we know, world-leading climate legislation in our 2008 Climate Change Act. Neither that law nor the carbon budgets that guide us to 80 per cent emissions reductions by 2050 rely on the EU. Our commitment to the Paris Agreement – taking us beyond our existing emissions target – is also not bound up in EU membership.
Yes, the renewable energy directive has helped galvanise deployment of clean electricity, but so too have the huge economic benefits, and the imperatives of those carbon budgets; there’s no good reason why this should drop off without Europe’s oversight. Similarly, we’re part of the EU emissions trading system (EU ETS). But, like CAP, it’s not doing what we need it to – huge oversupply of credits is keeping carbon prices unhelpfully low. We could now begin to imagine a situation where we might, like CAP, design a better system for the UK – enhance our climate action by re-casting these mechanisms to do better than the existing ones.
There are also valuable statutory benchmarks that we’ve established alongside our EU partners over the years – energy efficiency standards for appliances, emissions standards for vehicles, and for industrial emissions standards. Sticking to these when we leave not only supports tackling climate change and cutting air pollution, but also ensures that products built here in the UK still have access to that huge market that we are exiting. In much the same way, access for the burgeoning UK clean energy sector to the European energy market will be critical for jobs and investment here, as well as for further emissions reductions – crucial to helping continue to separate carbon growth from economic growth.
Policing the nonsense
Much of the work is there, done for us. We just need to be careful about how we transpose it into UK law. What we need to police, though, is the counter-narrative. That familiar handful of voices – marshalled into action last week by The Telegraph – who imply Brexit is all about rejecting straight bananas: that Europe is solely a story of rules forced onto us which stifle British business and the entrepreneurial spirit. This is such utter nonsense that it makes me sad all over again that we’re still having to argue against it! The idea that our carpets would be cleaner and our toast browner if only it wasn’t for those soulless Eurocrats making us dim our lightbulbs and throttle our business-folk with red tape. The notion that if we could only kill more insects, birds and mammals, we’d have enough homes and more factories.
Leaving aside the truly daft examples, their beefs almost all ignore the difference between costs and investments. We invest in people in organisations because they deliver those organisations’ purpose; they’re not a cost because they get paid. Investment in replacing all of our lightbulbs with LED ones would save us the cost of the electricity that would be generated by two and a half Hinckley Point C nuclear power stations. We invest in protecting our wildlife because of the profound cost – emotional, economic, and in terms of natural capital benefits – associated with its loss.
So that’s the job ahead: rebut the nonsense; seize the opportunities; police what gets brought over. That should keep us all very busy. And so keep me fired up rather than reflective.