Does Brexit point the way to a green and pleasant land?In becoming a lead figure of the Parliamentary movement to remain within the EU, Green MP Caroline Lucas hasn't been shy to raise Labour Party divisions, despite the other Green Party representative in Parliament, Baroness Jones of Moulescomb, being a steadfast leave voter. With an emphasis on the need to change UK politics at local level, and simplify structures for accountability and penalties, Jones sets out why she feels the UK environment could fare better outside of the Union.
Julian Sayarer (JS): In terms of environmental regulation, what are the big worries about a UK outside of the EU and its law?
Jenny Jones (JJ): We clearly need international action to deal with Climate Change and the EU has been one of the main drivers of Europe’s transformation towards a low carbon economy. However, the UK can continue to coordinate with the EU as we hit our own legal targets to reduce greenhouse gases by 80% by 2050.
The only thing stopping us, as always, is the British government adopting bad policies, like Heathrow expansion, banning onshore wind and pushing fracking. I can understand why many of my green colleagues like having the EU around, prodding our government into doing the right things, but ultimately it comes down to electing the right people in UK elections. Even if we remained within the EU, the UK government, or the devolved governments, could make a lot of big mistakes that damaged the environment. The only thing stopping us, as always, is the British government adopting bad policies. Policy-making needs to have the foundation provided by principles like precaution, future generations and polluter pays. If you leave the EU while dropping these principles then you rip out the heart of environmental law. The Government have resisted efforts by Caroline Lucas and other MPs to insert these back into UK law, via amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill. I’m sure the Lords will try to reinsert these and the government may be forced to fast track a separate environment bill to include them. The key thing is that there must be no gap between our leaving the EU and the new laws and standards being in place.
JS: From the contrary perspective, what do you regard as the big opportunities?
JJ: Reform of the CAP to stop the huge subsidy to big farmers for merely owning land and to redirect funds towards sustainable farming, flood prevention and the whole rewilding agenda (as championed by George Monbiot). What I mean by sustainable farming is a reduction in the use of pesticides and herbicides, along with measures that benefit smaller scale holdings, wildlife and organic farming. This has to go hand-in-glove with a move by the supermarkets and government to shift public attitudes to food, so that farmers who do the right thing have people they can sell to.
I am working with the Clean Air in London campaign to draft a Clean Air Bill to Parliament that includes the key principles, like future generations, that are currently in EU law. The central idea of the Bill is to make healthy air a human right and this is to be backed up by a Citizen’s Commission which would help people take legal action if their health was impacted by dirty air. I am co-ordinating this with the excellent work already done by Geraint Davis MP and his Clean Air Act. We could push for this regardless of Brexit, but the timetable for our leaving the EU and the potential vacuum that creates, makes these new laws even more urgent. The timetable for our leaving the EU and the potential vacuum that creates, makes these new laws even more urgent.
JS: From an environmental point of view, what is wrong with the makeup of the EU?
JJ: There are problems with how the EU spends our money, such as the environmental damage caused by many aspects of the Common Agricultural Policy, or the millions that were poured into road building, with no proper consideration of the wider environmental consequences. The leverage of corporate lobbyists and vested interests is massive, despite the efforts of many elected Greens in the European Parliament to steer policy in a positive way.
I come from the ‘small is beautiful’ generation who believe that decisions should be taken at the most local level possible, so that there is a connection between the decision and the outcome of that decision. I realise that this is a difficult philosophy to stick to in the age of globalisation, but I think that many of the EU attempts to control international capital are flawed because those institutions naturally seek compromise and soft deals with those corporate powers that are wrecking the planet. Many of the EU attempts to control international capital are flawed because those institutions naturally seek compromise and soft deals with those corporate powers that are wrecking the planet.
JS: EU law has been used to lobby the UK government over issues including air quality - what might take the place of those standards?
JJ: We need a new set of standards adopted by the UK and devolved governments, to replace the EU ones. However, these new ‘limit values’ or targets, should build on the EU rules and be based upon World Health Organisation advice.
I first wrote to the European Commission about the lack of action by the UK government and London Mayor back in 2002, when I was on the London Assembly. I laid out how the pollution reduction targets for 2005 would not be met and why. Sadly, I was right. Despite several more letters over the years, urging the EU to act, it has been left to Client Earth, a charity, to beat the government in the courts. The EU rules have helped myself and others get leverage with the threat of the UK being fined by the Commission, but the infraction process has felt distant and convoluted. We need a simplified British version.
As someone who has been campaigning about air pollution for nearly twenty years, I know that Labour, Conservative and Coalition governments have been guilty of inaction and that the EU has often been their excuse for that inaction. The whole DEFRA strategy for reducing air pollution since the 1990s has been focused upon the technical fix of reducing emissions from new vehicles in Europe. While the European Commission did tighten up the testing for Heavy Goods Vehicles producing particulate emissions (PM10s), they failed to properly regulate the car manufacturers. This EU wide failure is one reason why the UK is still breaking the law on air pollution eight years after the compliance deadline. However, the biggest reason why thousands still die prematurely each year is that successive UK governments have built new roads, increased traffic and run-down bus services. EU wide failure is one reason why the UK is still breaking the law on air pollution eight years after the compliance deadline.
JS: What happens if a Brexit UK chooses to undercut the EU's Emissions Trading System (ETS) - seen by many as the world's foremost market implement for carbon emissions reduction?
JJ: Brexit does give more scope for the right wing ideologues in the Cabinet to undermine existing international agreements, especially as they largely seek to by-pass Parliament by making policy via trade deals. My answer, as before, is to kick them out at the next election. Adopting a system of Fair Votes for elections would give a genuine choice to people who believe that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity.
JS: Are you concerned that a cosmetic focus on environments and animal welfare campaigns could mask a structural unravelling of environmental regulation in the wake of Brexit?
JJ: The series of recent decisions on animal welfare made by Michael Gove, as Secretary of State for Environment, have been positive and welcome, but I doubt that any of the seasoned campaigners will get so distracted that they ignore the Government’s big push on fracking and its lack of support for renewables.
I think that this government is seriously misjudging the public mood by rejecting straightforward amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, like the Caroline Lucas proposal on Animal Sentience. These are common sense amendments which are trying to retain the same approach to environmental policy and rules that we currently have. The Government have repeatedly claimed to be transferring over all the existing EU rules into British law, but they are leaving huge gaps. Ministers are then claiming to need expansive control with Henry 8th powers, to fill these gaps as they think fit. These Ministerial powers to make up laws without recourse to Parliament are an Executive Power grab. That is their deliberate purpose and it is a political choice, not an administrative necessity. The Government’s way of doing Brexit is the opposite of Parliament ‘taking back control’. The Government’s way of doing Brexit is the opposite of Parliament ‘taking back control’I’m hopeful that the Lords will heavily amend the EU Withdrawal Bill and fill as many of these gaps as possible. Above all, the Lords need to defend Parliamentary Democracy by restricting the Henry the 8th powers as much as they can. I can see the irony of unelected peers stepping in to demand that Parliament has a vote on the detail of Brexit, but that is exactly what a second chamber should do when faced by an overbearing executive running a minority government.
Theresa May doesn’t have a guaranteed majority in Parliament so she is trying to steamroller through the Henry 8th powers, on the back of a minimalist EU Withdrawal Bill as a way of by-passing difficult debates about the detail of Brexit. It is those ‘details’ like Animal Sentience being a principle in UK law, which are the things that campaigners and the public will get worked up about.
On the London Assembly, and in nationwide movements for clean air and against roadbuilding, Jones has been ever present in grassroots environmental campaigning.
JS: Do you envisage an enlarged role for DEFRA and other UK ministries in taking up the work of EU bodies? How will they cope?
JJ: They won’t cope and this is something that the green movement needs to urgently debate, because I suspect that many of us have vastly different experiences that need to be shared. Personally, I don’t trust DEFRA because of their complacency over air pollution, the weakness of their incinerator monitoring regime, and their failure to deal with flooding. I don’t trust DEFRA.
Campaigners involved in other areas of DEFRA’s work may feel more sympathetic towards them, but we need new, independent institutions like the Citizens Commission that I’ve proposed for air pollution. I’m not suggesting we scrap DEFRA in the short term, but the civil servants must start to see legal compliance with environmental targets (overseen by Parliament) as more important than keeping their Minister happy.
The draft of my Clean Air Bill includes giving responsibility for hitting the air pollution targets to The Environment Agency (EA). People would have the power to sue the EA if they don’t achieve the targets and this impacts on people’s health. I don’t see why we wouldn’t expand this principle to other areas such as flooding and water pollution (such as that associated with fracking). This puts existing agencies, like the EA, in the front line and they would be forced to win more powers, resources and independence to do their job. I think this is a quicker route to change than creating new agencies and a new bureaucracy.