Environment and Climate Change (European Union Referendum)
Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
27 October 2016
The environment is an international issue and, whether we are choking in the smog of Los Angeles or watching acid rain fall in eastern Siberia, climate change recognises no boundaries.
One of the EU’s great successes has been the comprehensive suite of laws, directives and treaties that have developed, sustained and protected the environment.
The EU is perhaps not the world’s environmental watchdog, but it is nevertheless a champion and a leader in making the large-scale global emissions cuts that are needed to begin tackling climate change.
It is easy to forget that, in the 1970s and 1980s, the UK was known as the dirty man of Europe.
We had the highest sulphur dioxide emissions from power stations, causing acid rain across northern Europe, and raw sewage was routinely dumped into the sea.
In 1976, for example, only 27 beaches in the UK were deemed to be clean enough for swimming.
The EU has helped to modernise the UK’s environmental policies since we joined in 1973.
Through the EU, Scotland said farewell—this year—to its last coal-fired power station, and the precautionary principle means that the most harmful pesticides were banned from use on the crops that are most visited by bees—I declare my interest as the species champion for the great yellow bumblebee.
European rules have meant that thousands of dangerous chemicals have been removed from everyday products, such as lead from paint, and if the current proposals in the revised waste framework directive are adopted, they have the potential to be transformational for Scotland in relation to litter.
However, I stress that the relationship between the EU and the UK has not been one-way.
The UK has helped to shape EU thinking across a number of areas, including wildlife protection and climate change.
For example, Europe’s water framework directive led to cleaner Scottish water, Europe’s landfill directives led to improved Scottish recycling rates and Europe’s environmental assessment directives have led to improved Scottish air quality.
Air quality is a key aspect that—of course—affects people the world over.
Currently, Scotland is influenced by binding EU legislation, which has a direct implication for our health.
The EU air quality directive target was missed by both Scotland and the UK as a whole, which led to the cleaner air for Scotland programme being introduced.
However, that came into being only because the EU law could be used as a stick over the UK Government, keeping it accountable and pushing it to improve standards, although I note that the legal limits for nitrogen dioxide are still being broken in several parts of Scotland.
It is incredibly important to note that, once we leave the EU, the fact that Scotland and the UK will have the ability to repeal the legislation does not mean that they should.
Not only does Scotland have the desire to stay in the EU, which is an incentive to keep within the current EU expectations of standards; another incentive is to help to improve the health of our population.
What are the consequences of Brexit for the environment and climate change?
Even the famous 17th century Highland mystic, the Brahan Seer, who allegedly predicted the outbreak of world war two in 1939, would be stumped.
Will it be a hard or a soft Brexit?
Will MPs and, indeed, MSPs have a voice before article 50 is invoked?
What if the proposed great repeal bill is defeated? What concessions will the remaining 27 member states want in exchange for a continued trading relationship with the UK?
Let me give an example.
Recently, I attended the Economic Development Association Scotland conference in Edinburgh, and one of the key speakers that day argued that Spain would demand access to Scottish fishing rights as part of the negotiations.
Any suggestion that the UK should continue to have access to the single market would need us to meet the test of the EU’s holy grail of the four freedoms, including freedom of movement.
There is also a world of difference between being part of the single market and having access to it.
What would a soft Brexit mean for the environment and climate change?
One possibility is to negotiate membership of the European economic area, as Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein have done.
As members know, the EEA comprises the 28 EU member states and the three European Free Trade Association states.
As an EFTA fact sheet states,
“it is therefore impossible to be a party to the EEA Agreement without being a member of either the EU or EFTA.”
Of course, the UK would have to implement EU product standards to access the single market, but it would have no role in shaping future EU environmental policy.
The real threat from Brexit is that Europe’s checks and balances may go.
Who will enforce Brussels directives post Brexit? Who will be in charge of infraction procedures?
My colleague Neil Findlay will talk in more detail about the effect that future trade deals may have on the environment and climate change.
In its briefing, Global Justice Now explains:
“The EU-US trade deal known as TTIP and its Canadian equivalent, CETA, are among the biggest threats to democratic decision making in Europe of our time ... The UK cannot go back to the sewage ridden beaches and environmental destruction of decades past. It is of vital importance that any Brexit deal must involve the UK agreeing to fully maintain EU standards on areas like biodiversity, water and air quality.”
The investor-state dispute settlement system creates tribunals in which foreign investors can sue Governments that interfere with their profit—their bottom line.
They are part of CETA, which is the comprehensive economic and trade agreement, and are also likely to be in TTIP, which is the transatlantic trade and investment partnership.
For example, Swedish energy firm Vattenfall used the ISDS mechanism to demand €1 billion from Germany after the state government of Hamburg introduced stricter regulations on the firm’s coal-fired power stations.
That led to a change of Government policy, a court settlement from Germany and a major set back for the environment and climate change.
The debate is about much more than Brexit. It is about what sort of Scotland we want in the future: a Scotland that is clean, green and sustainable, and a Scotland that is recognised around the globe for the quality of its natural environment, its stunning hills, glens and lochs, its talented multicultural workforce, and the warmth of its welcome to tourists.
In our history, Scots have been leaders: James Watt, the godfather of the industrial revolution; Robert Watson-Watt, the inventor of radar; Willamina Fleming, the early astronomy pioneer.
Today, we are leaders in climate change and the environment, and as the great environmental activist, Wendell Benny, said:
“The world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children.”
I move amendment S5M-02125.2, to insert after first “climate change”:
“and in driving forward collective action for the sustainable development of the marine environment; notes the significant role played by collaborative research across the EU in developing the scientific evidence that underpins protection and enhancement of a healthy environment”.