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Environment and Climate Change (European Union Referendum)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 27th October 2016.

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Photo of Mr Mark Ruskell Mr Mark Ruskell Green

I welcome the debate.

As we have heard, we live in a Europe where air pollution knows no borders, where fish swim across international waters and where our shared values and actions to protect our commons and our nature are enshrined in European laws and treaties. The days when the UK was known as the dirty man of Europe are over, because EU regulations on the environment dragged us into the modern world. As David Stewart said, we no longer send boats out to dump raw sewage off the east coast—that would be unimaginable today. We no longer treat precious plastic and steel as rubbish to be buried in stinking pits in the ground. We gave the white-tailed eagle, the wildcat and the minke whale the status and protection that they deserve under progressive EU laws. I should declare an interest: I am a champion for the white-tailed eagle.

I openly confess in the chamber that I wept in front of my family on the Friday morning when the Brexit vote was announced, because for me as a Green it represented the casting aside of 40 years of environmental and social progress that we won as a European movement, and it put into grave danger the hope of a further 40 years of progress and reform for my children’s generation.

A visit the same day to the Royal Highland Show did not improve my mood, as institution after institution that I spoke to shared their pain. Collaborative projects had been cancelled that very morning, as confidence from European partners drained away.

We are seeing that the cost to Scotland’s environment is stacking up. The EU LIFE programme, for example, has provided £42 million in matched funding to support peatland restoration over the past 20 years. Where will that support come from now, when we need healthy peatlands more than ever for both their conservation value and their vast carbon sinks? A proposed RSPB and Plantlife £11m EU LIFE project to eradicate invasive rhododendron has now been withdrawn. That would have been preventative spend, which the Christie commission urged us to invest in. If we do not make such investments, it will cost the environment and the public purse for generations to come.

What will we be left with post Brexit? If we end up with a soft Brexit and remain part of the European free trade area, at least some of our common EU standards will remain, but directives on things from birds to habitats and bathing water quality, and even the common agricultural policy and common fisheries policy, will no longer apply.

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment, which I have heard her repeat on many an occasion, to uphold EU laws and directives, but these are early days and times change. Ministers and even Governments change, and already lobby groups are seeing the opportunity to weaken what they see as red tape in a CAP and CFP-free zone.

That is why it is more important than ever to refocus efforts on respecting scientific advice and adopting an ecosystems approach to regenerating our seas and fish stocks. It is also why we need to revisit the defining principles of our agriculture policy, possibly for the first time since the pivotal post-war Agriculture Act 1947, which was passed when we lived in a nation that was desperately hungry. The Scottish Government has the chance to put in place a progressive agricultural vision that can be reflected across the EU, including the prioritisation of organic production, the smarter use of fertiliser and the raising of livestock health. That approach will find support across Europe, particularly from the French, who now have placed agro-ecology at the heart of their national agriculture policy.

The proposed good food nation bill should start by recognising that food overproduction has destroyed biodiversity, has effectively strip mined our soils in some areas and is driving land use into becoming an even bigger emitter of carbon than the entire energy generation sector. That has already been the stand-out point in the evidence that the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee has received in the few weeks that it has met. The evidence of the UK Committee on Climate Change shows that that we have a crisis in agriculture with regard to not just carbon emissions but adaptations. The need for agricultural reform is clear, but we must move forward together to raise the playing field of standards across the EU and shift subsidies away from blunt support for overproduction to measures that can deliver real benefits for taxpayers, from flood protection and species reintroduction to clean soil, air and water.

On the moral imperative that is climate change, our targets have been set in the context of a Europe that is driving hard progress on carbon and energy. A weaker set of UK climate targets agreed with the United Nations would take the pressure off the UK, and with a Westminster Government that is mad keen on nuclear energy and fracking, it is likely that energy market rules established in the wake of Brexit will stifle Scotland’s ambitions for renewables instead of realising them.

In that respect, it is incredible to hear Maurice Golden talk about the subsidy regime, given that it has been cut by the Conservatives. His Government is no longer supporting renewables in Scotland, and people are losing jobs as a result. We have seen how it has butchered that renewables subsidy scheme, and it is switching off the investment pipeline for onshore wind and other technologies in Scotland just as the cost gap with conventional generation is starting to narrow. The news that the UK has dropped to 14th most attractive place for renewables investment in the world behind Morocco is a disgrace, given the richness of our renewable resources and innovation expertise. Indeed, the signs are not good, given that we still await Westminster’s action plan to deliver the UK’s climate targets, with no clear timescale on the horizon.

A post-Brexit bonfire of environmental regulations, investment, research and subsidies from Westminster will only drive bad consequentials for budgets in Scotland and put our own green ambitions firmly back in the box. However, the hard Brexit scenario offers an even more terrifying prospect of a race to the bottom in environmental and social standards driven by neoliberal trade deals that undermine the democratic will of citizens across the world. CETA and the transatlantic trade and investment partnership are not benign trade agreements that helpfully reduce tariffs and quotas; they allow public policy on everything from climate change to food standards to be challenged by corporations. The right to trade trumps everything and states that those who stand in the way can be sued through closed corporate courts. As Alyn Smith has said, we do not live in an economy, we live in a society, and those trade agreements have the potential to pull our public services and hard-fought environmental protections apart.

That is why the Green amendment reflects three key red lines around democratic accountability and protection for public services and the environment. There are examples that I can highlight for Liam McArthur’s benefit. In Quebec, corporations have sued Governments over fracking bans. It is unthinkable that such a thing could happen here in Scotland, but all Algy Cluff would need to do to sue the Scottish Government would be to open up an office in Vancouver—he would not even require an office here.

It is clear that, collectively, states and devolved Parliaments across Europe have taken their eye off the ball with CETA. Scrutiny at Westminster has been non-existent and the devolved Administrations are coming late to the debate.