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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 Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

This is my first opportunity to participate in the now weekly debates on the consequences of Brexit. I make it clear from the outset that I absolutely share the dismay that is felt by many at the mess that the Tories have landed the country in through an abject failure to manage divisions within their party. I believe that the vote by the UK to leave the EU was a backward, self-defeating step of historic proportions, and one that was not in the interests of the UK, of Scotland or of the Orkney community that I represent.

Back in June, my constituents voted heavily in favour of remaining part of the EU. They recognise that EU membership is profoundly in their interests for a host of reasons, so I will do all in my power to safeguard those interests in the months ahead. However,

Orkney voted even more overwhelmingly in favour of remaining part of the UK back in 2014, and I simply do not accept that layering the additional uncertainty of a second independence referendum on top of what we already face with Brexit is compatible with representing and safeguarding the interests of those whom I was elected to serve.

There will be colleagues in the chamber—I will not name them—who can chart a more long-standing commitment to European integration and the principles that underlie it. For me, though, it is at the heart of why I am a Liberal Democrat. A passionate belief in empowering individuals and communities to fulfil their potential only works if one also accepts the necessity of collective action and collaboration to tackle problems and seize opportunities that transcend nations.

An obvious example of an area in which such action is required is climate change and, more broadly, the protection of the environment. The Government’s motion is absolutely right to point to the pivotal role that the EU has played in developing the environmental agenda, raising standards in air and water quality, cutting emissions, reducing waste and a host of other areas. In part, the EU has achieved that by securing concerted collective action and lifting the threat that steps taken by one member state would leave it at a competitive disadvantage compared with others. It has also succeeded in bringing those issues into the main stream of political debate across the continent and further afield.

Domestically, it is estimated that around 80 per cent of our environmental legislation originates at an EU level. To take just one example, Scottish Renewables claimed in 2013 that EU directives and their implementation by the UK and Scottish Governments were responsible for delivering much of the progress that had been achieved in the sector up to that point, although Mark Ruskell made some sensible observations on what has happened in the past couple of years.

However, that did not stop the Scottish ministers setting renewables targets for 2020 that were more challenging than those for the UK or the EU. In truth, there is nothing to stop the cabinet secretary taking a bolder, more ambitious path on the environment, regardless of whether we are inside or outside the EU. The RSPB and others make that very point in their briefings, along with the case for securing sustainable land and sea management and future funding for environmental initiatives, which other members have mentioned.

The current uncertainty over Brexit and the UK Government’s platitudinous mantra of “Brexit means Brexit” are wholly unhelpful, but that is not a justification for the Scottish Government to throw its hands up in the air and say that nothing can be done, or for this Parliament to renege on its responsibility to hold ministers to account on the environment.

WWF has set out a range of areas in which that can and must be done. Heat and transport, to which my amendment refers, are prime examples. Although excellent progress has been made in reducing emissions from electricity, the same cannot be said of heat, which is responsible for more than half our greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, renewables account for only 4 per cent of Scotland’s heat. WWF argues that that will need to improve tenfold by 2030 if we are to begin to meet our climate changes targets.

On transport, the situation appears to be little better. Emissions from transport have fallen by less than 1 per cent since 1990, and WWF highlights ways in which improvements might be made in the future. What is not suggested is that the Scottish Government should give a £250 million tax break to the airline industry through changes to air passenger duty, which will also pump 60,000 tonnes of carbon into Scotland’s air each year. Also absent from any to-do list for decarbonising transport is flag-waving Scottish Government support for Heathrow expansion. That decision is set for years of legal dispute over breaches to EU and UK laws on air quality and noise, and it flies an Airbus A380 through the SNP’s commitment to tackling climate change and reducing environmentally damaging short-haul flights. Doubtless, Heathrow lobbyists will be congratulating themselves on money well spent at the recent SNP conference.

Before closing, I will touch briefly on the final element of my amendment and the Government’s motion. As discussions continue over what precisely Brexit will mean in practice, Scottish voices must be heard and Scottish interests protected. In the area of climate change and the environment, that is not in the interests of just Scotland or the UK, but in the interests of the EU. The breadth and depth of our expertise here are truly world class. I cite the example of Heriot-Watt University only to illustrate what is to be found across our colleges, universities and research institutes, as well as in the private, public and voluntary sectors in Scotland.

I will not undermine Heriot-Watt’s achievements by trying to describe its work on surface active agents under the MARISURF project. Suffice it to say that that collaborative venture under the horizon 2020 programme amply demonstrates how Scottish research is highly regarded and its direct relevance to addressing the environmental challenges that many of our industries face, as do industries across the continent and further afield.

Although such initiatives have needlessly and recklessly been made more difficult by Brexit, it is hard to understand SNP ministers’ view that a vote for Scotland to leave the UK would have had no impact on the allocation of research funding or collaboration, but that Brexit presents an existential threat. Whatever the future holds, I hope that the Scottish and UK Governments, and indeed the EU, will continue to recognise and invest in the world-class research, innovation and skills that are to be found here in Scotland.

The tragedy of June’s vote takes many forms, and making collaborative action on the environment and climate change less straightforward is but one. However, with a climate change bill, a warm homes bill and an energy strategy in the pipeline, the Parliament will have opportunities in the months ahead to show leadership on the environment, if it so chooses.

I move amendment S5M-02125.4, to leave out from “believes” to end and insert:

“considers that while the EU has helped secure concerted collective action, it has always been open to governments to set more ambitious standards; believes that Scotland’s status as a climate change leader is jeopardised by the Scottish Government’s lack of progress to reduce emissions in areas such as heat and transport, coupled with its support for environmentally damaging policies on air passenger duty and Heathrow expansion, and further believes that the expertise available in Scotland on environmental and climate change matters, and its needs, must be taken into account by the UK Government during the Brexit decision-making and negotiation process.”