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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 Angus MacDonald Angus MacDonald Scottish National Party

I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this important debate, not least because it allows me to highlight concerns about the environment that have been raised with me both locally and nationally since the Brexit vote on 23 June.

I say at the outset how pleased I was to see the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform announce during the summer recess—on 24 July—that the Scottish Government will refuse to turn back the clock on environmental laws and will abide by European Union rules that protect wildlife and prevent pollution, despite the Brexit vote. A pledge not to weaken a raft of Brussels legal measures that are regarded as crucial for conserving plants and animals and keeping air, water and land clean and healthy must have been music to the ears of every environmental activist in the country.

Things have moved on slightly since July, although we are still none the wiser as to the detail of the Brexit negotiations, probably because it appears that the UK Government itself does not yet know what it is trying to achieve. That makes life extremely difficult for the rest of us. The uncertainty is making some of my constituents in Falkirk East slightly nervous, not least the residents of Grangemouth, who live cheek by jowl with the petrochemical and agrochemical industries in the port. Local residents have expressed to me their concerns about local air quality. There have been breaches of the limits for sulphur dioxide emissions in Grangemouth. However, considering the concentration of industry in and around the town, it is thanks to EU directives on air quality that there have not been more complaints, or indeed breaches.

Grangemouth is home to six of Scotland’s 15 large Chemical Industries Association-registered companies. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency, which has oversight of large industrial sites in the town such as those of Ineos and CalaChem, has worked closely with those firms to improve working practices, tighten up procedures in order to ensure that they are operating within the legislative framework that is already in place and highlighted best practice for operation within the air quality limits that have been laid down by the EU. There is still work to do in ensuring that those high standards are maintained, and the uncertainty over whether compliance will be as easily enforceable without the back-up of the EU should be of some concern to us all.

That brings me to our international obligations. There is no doubt that, post Brexit, there will need to be some co-ordination between the countries of the UK. Until now, the EU has provided that envelope, and we need to know at an early date what arrangements will replace it. For example, there could be a scenario where the UK forced Scotland to accept things such as genetically modified crops by signing trade deals with little or no input from Scotland’s Government or Parliament.

There is significant concern out there regarding the implications of Brexit for UK environment and climate change law and policy. For example, there are concerns in the academic world from a Scottish perspective regarding the UK nationally determined contribution under the Paris agreement. In a nutshell, NDCs are documents that contain details of what each country intends to do to contribute to the 2°C goal that is enshrined in the Paris agreement in each of the five-year cycles that are envisioned in the treaty. The first such cycle covers the period 2020 to 2025.

From the beginning, EU member states opted to implement their commitments under the climate treaties jointly. In 2015, therefore, the EU submitted an NDC on behalf of all the EU member states. Now, the UK will no longer have the luxury of leaving that work to EU officials and will have to undertake the work itself. The ratification process of the Paris agreement has seen EU member states such as France deposit their ratification instrument and a declaration that asserts that they intend to rely on the NDC that the European Union submitted in 2015. Instead of that approach, the NDCs of some EEA countries such as Norway and Iceland assert that they intend to pursue their mitigation action in co-operation with the EU.

The UK is still a member of the EU, but it will no longer be one after 2020, when the first cycle that is envisioned in the Paris agreement will kick in. To comply with its formal obligation under the Paris agreement to submit an NDC, the UK will have to produce one of its own. We have to ask whether it has the capacity to do that.

It will be the first time that the UK engages in such an exercise. The closest proxy is EU negotiations concerning the so-called effort sharing decisions, through which EU member states shared among themselves the burdens that are associated with achieving the targets that are embedded in EU climate law and the Kyoto protocol. However, in that context it was a matter of deciding how much each member state would do, after a decision on how much to achieve collectively had already been taken at EU level. Now, instead, it is a matter for the UK to decide on its own—hopefully through consultation with all devolved Administrations, although we will wait and see—the level of ambition to embed in its NDC and how to achieve it.

With Brexit, the UK is, or should be, about to engage in an exercise to decide what it wants to include in its NDC for the period 2020 to 2025. As there is no precedent for that, the cabinet secretary and the First Minister must stress to the UK Government that devolved Administrations must be involved in the process.

It is clear that, with our strong domestic climate change legislation, we must be determined that Brexit must not result in a reduction in ambition when it comes to climate change action in Scotland. I was encouraged to hear the cabinet secretary say at this week’s meeting of the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee that the Scottish Government is proceeding as planned with the climate change plan, which gives some certainty in an uncertain situation.

Although environmental policy is devolved, policies and countries are linked in many ways. Countries working together are able to achieve better outcomes than they can in isolation. Let us remember that the EU referendum result cannot reduce the strength of laws made in the Scottish Parliament, and we must all do all that we can to ensure that our regulatory bodies do all that they can to regulate and protect our environment.