Thursday, 17 May 2018

UK Environmental Standards Must be at least as Good as EU ones

With the fifteenth defeat for the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill in the House of Lords this week, peers have given MPs the chance to assure no reductions in our environmental standards once we leave the EU. By a 50 vote majority, the Lords voted for the establishing of a statutory commitment to maintaining EU standards in areas around air pollution and waste and recycling, to be added to Bill.

Amendments included that “the Secretary of State must take steps designed to ensure that the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU does not result in the removal or diminution of any rights…that contribute to the protection and improvement of the environment.”

Despite the government’s assurances that environment standards will be protected, with even the newly acquired eco-warrior pose of Michael Gove, the environment secretary, who claims UK standards may be even higher than those in the EU. The Lords where clearly unimpressed with Gove’s rhetoric on the matter, and voted accordingly.

It is not difficult to see why the Lords were sceptical, as the UK (and five other nations) have been referred to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for failing to tackle high levels of pollution in Britain’s cities caused mainly by diesel powered vehicles. Ministers were forced by UK courts to improve the plan in February, after losing in the high court for the third time to environmental lawyers ClientEarth, and have until the end of 2018 to implement the stricter measures. Nearly, 23,500 deaths a year in the UK result from this type of air pollution. The ECJ could impose a multi-million Euro fine on the UK.

The EU has been threatening the UK with action over poor air quality since 2014, so it not as though the government hasn’t been warned about this matter, but has repeated failed to act to reduce dangerous emissions.

Air pollution is one of just over 150 EU environmental standards that apply in the UK by virtue of our membership of the organisation. Although, all of these standards will be incorporated into British law on our immediate exit from the EU, the suspicion is that they would be gradually chipped away at (the same can be said of employment protection laws too), where maximising profits for businesses is limited in some way. The environment is treated as a freebie for business, which under the Tories always takes priority.

All of which is pertinent to Brexit, and what will happen to environmental standards once the UK leaves and EU, (and perhaps) negotiates trading arrangements with other nations, particularly the US. 

A draft of the sustainable development section of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the US was leaked to The Guardian in October 2015. Asked to comment on the document, a French environmental attorney described the proposed environmental safeguards as "virtually non-existent" by comparison with the protection granted to investors, and that environmental cases accounted for 60% of the 127 Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) cases already brought against EU countries under bilateral trade agreements in the last two decades, according to Friends of the Earth Europe.

The draft energy chapter of the TTIP was also leaked to The Guardian in July 2016. This draft could have sabotage European efforts to implement mandatory energy savings measures and to favour the switch to renewable electricity generation.

TTIP is an obvious starting point for a US/UK trade deal, since a lot of work went into this deal, which the UK championed within the EU more strongly than any other country. Any deal will almost certainly bear a close resemblance to TTIP. The EU in the end rejected TTIP, but an independent UK will find it harder to resist, on its own. The US won’t be doing us any favours either.

This is one reason why the Tories do not want to be tied to EU environmental standards, as it reduces the scope for making new trade deals, and is nothing to do with the environmental protections themselves. If the Tories were really intent on maintaining environmental protections, then what are they afraid of in the Lords amendment?

You just can’t trust them on this, so I do hope MPs accept the amendment when it returns to the House of Commons to vote on. The Tories are just not interested in the environment.

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