Our impasse with the EU and on waste have to end

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
Environmental journalist David Burrows

Brexit, for all its pitfalls, provides the freedom to run our economy, but what kind of economy do we want?

In September, a Guardian leader noted how the 2016 referendum has exposed “divisive contradictions at the heart of the ruling party”. Since then, the flip-flopping has reached satirical levels, and our alignment to European environmental regulations is a key battleground.

Greenwashing of the Conservatives has long been a ticking timebomb, but Brexit has finally detonated it. Trawl back through the archives, as Carbon Briefdid recently, and you will find some reassuring words in 2006 from Theresa May, then shadow leader of the house.

She said: “Conservatives want to enhance our environment by seeking a long-term cross-party consensus on sustainable development and climate change – instead of short-term thinking or surrendering to vested interests. The modern, compassionate Conservative Party believes that quality of life matters just as much as quantity of money.”

But 12 years on and there is perhaps less consensus than ever. Michael Gove, who has surprised many in his time as Environment Secretary, spends most of his waking hours reassuring everyone that everything will be hunky dory.

“We have been clear that in all scenarios we will deliver a green Brexit where environmental standards are not only maintained, but enhanced,” said a Defra spokesperson in response to claims that snubbing the Chequers plan for Brexit could lead to “disaster” for the environment.

That line has been trotted out so often, the department’s press officers should save time by adding it to their email signature. As the old propaganda trick goes: repeat a lie enough and it becomes the truth. But is it a lie? That rests on whether May and Gove stay resident at Number 10 and Nobel House respectively. By the time you read this, they could have already packed their bags.

Indeed, Gove and May can tell us they are environmentalists until they are green in the face, but it’s not just us they must convince – it’s their own party.

Consider the article by David Davis in July, just after he resigned as Brexit Secretary because he didn’t believe in the Chequers plan. “The UK has a unique opportunity to connect with the world’s most dynamic markets in North America and Asia,” he wrote in The Financial Times.

However, under the Chequers plan, “Britain would have to obey EU regulations […] on a huge range of interconnected areas such as environment and food production”. Davis cited the need for “regulatory autonomy” and “pro-competitive regulation”, before warning that a Brexit “halfway house” would “stifle wealth”.

More and more Conservative MPs are warming to this way of thinking. Support for a Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU has reportedly snowballed in recent weeks (“more than half” of the Cabinet support that approach, according to The Telegraphin mid-October). That idea has certainly got many spooked.

Shaun Spiers, who leads NGO coalition GreenerUK, wrote of the dangers of pivoting towards countries with lower environmental standards: “…it is hard to see any environmental benefit in the Institute of Economic Affairs and Boris Johnson Plan A+ proposal or, indeed, similar proposals. They are designed to drive down standards.”

The crux of the matter is this: Brexit, for all its pitfalls, provides the freedom to run our economy, but what kind of economy do we want? One that respects the environment, manages resources responsibly and enhances rather than expends our precious biodiversity?

Or a dirty linear one, so we can flutter our eyelashes provocatively at countries with equally low standards of environmental regulation, and which puts us firmly on the path to extinction?

I am not exaggerating for dramatic effect. “Our economies are entirely dependent upon the environment and the natural world,” wrote the authors of Wealth of Nature. “Simply put, without nature, no other value is possible.”

More recently, there was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report, warning there are 12 years left to avert climate change catastrophe. There are still 818 days of Donald Trump’s presidency left, plus I-don’t-know-how-long of Brexit shenanigans still to go, but brave decisions need to be taken now.

Indeed, it is interesting that despite Brexit, the business of developing EU environmental policies continues as usual. A Circular Economy Package is in place, as well as a new plastics strategy, and in October the first steps were taken to flesh out how to dump the old economy and accelerate towards a new one.

The review of the 2012 Bioeconomy Strategy is short in length but lofty in ambition – this is “the face of the next economy”, said the European Commission’s bioeconomy director John Bell at a conference in Brussels last month.

Dubbed the renewable part of the circular economy, it spans food and nutrition security, resource efficiency, pollution (including plastics), biodiversity loss and renewable energy. This is about “rethinking our economy and modernising our production models”, said vice-president for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness Jyrki Katainen.

Meanwhile, back at home, Brexit seems to have sucked the life out of environmental policies; the government’s early 2018 greenwash is fading by the day.

January’s launch of the 25 Year Environment plan seems like a distant memory, while the Bioeconomy Strategy – which I was told was slated for last April – has yet to appear. Consensus on the final package, no doubt, has been impossible to agree. And all the while the clock counting down to environmental disaster ticks louder.

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