SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 218 May 2018

Brexit and the environment

Like on many economic and social issues the various camps of the capitalist establishment are split over future environmental policy following the vote to leave the European Union. The Tory right are plotting a bonfire of remaining safeguards, not stopping at those emanating from Brussels. Pro-EU groups in all the establishment parties attack this as irresponsible and promote the EU as an essential environmental safeguard. Balancing between the two, prime minister Theresa May is promising to keep all existing laws after Brexit. What are the real agendas and the truth in the claims and counter-claims?

The Tory right are organised in the Initiative for Free Trade (IFT) led by MEP Daniel Hannon. It is allied with ten other right-wing think-tanks, including the US-based Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute, and the market fundamentalist Institute of Economic Affairs in Britain. UK trade minister, Liam Fox, helped launch the IFT and said that his department would be a "very, very, willing partner in your great and wonderful quest".

Top of their agenda, as revealed by Greenpeace, is importing food, drugs and chemicals from the USA that are presently banned in Britain. This includes chlorinated chicken and hormone-reared beef. They also plan to ditch the ‘precautionary principle’, where a product has to be proved to be safe before it is sold, rather than waiting for proof it is unsafe. These initial demands are likely to be the tip of the iceberg. All these organisations are dominated by climate change deniers – mostly semi-covert now – or climate change effects deniers.

Cross-party, pro-EU MPs and other remainers correctly denounce this as dangerous, but then talk-up the role of the EU as the protector of the environment. Supporters point to the campaign to cut the sulphur dioxide emissions that were causing acid rain, linked to the destruction of forests in the 1970s. This resulted in a 94% fall in the pollutant by 2011 and it is claimed that this prevented 46,000 premature deaths in Europe by improving air quality.

European directives have also helped protect nature sites such as Dartmoor and Snowdonia. Before the directive, Britain was losing 15% of such areas every year, according to Friends of the Earth, a figure that is now down to 1%. Also, the enforcement of EU law has increased the number of beaches where it is safe to go bathing to 90%, by reducing the amount of untreated sewage being pumped directly into the sea.

Yet these steps forward – of course, very welcome – could also have been won with campaigns if Britain had been outside the EU. Set against them on an EU environmental balance sheet are far more significant failures. The Common Agricultural Policy has had damaging effects, in particular. Agriculture has been the biggest driver of biodiversity decline in Britain (Greener UK website), which will have uncertain but potentially serious consequences for the ecosystem.

Remainers claim that outside the EU it will be harder to uphold and enforce environmental laws, as the institutions responsible for them are cut and weakened. Some big corporations and their backers in parliament will undoubtedly attempt this after Brexit, but the record of EU legislation enforcement in this area is also poor. Air pollution in Britain has exceeded EU norms since 2010; this year, London reached its annual EU-set legal air pollution limit after one month. The most dangerous particles are nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ones called PM2.5. These can lodge deeply into the lungs and contribute to an estimated 40,000 early deaths every year in Britain, seven million worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation.

An even more serious EU regulatory failure was the VW diesel emissions scandal in 2015. When VW senior management fraudulently rigged tests to understate NO2 pollution from diesel engines, this flagrant abuse was ignored by the EU for nine months after the incontrovertible evidence emerged. The big German corporations then hypocritically attacked the EU’s inadequate regulations that allowed car companies to play the EU system by shopping around for lenient treatment from individual member states.

However, these charges pale into insignificance when compared to the EU’s abject failure to tackle global warming. The EU has always claimed to be in the vanguard of attempts to tackle climate change, and the centrepiece of its efforts has been a cap-and-trade scheme, initially linked to the Kyoto treaty on global warming until it lapsed in 2012. This permit trading system involved setting legal limits on the emissions of greenhouse gases that firms and other bodies could emit. If these were exceeded they would have to buy permits to pollute.

The theory went that, if the price of a permit was sufficiently high, firms would think twice about breaking their limit. Experts calculated that the price would have to be above €35/tonne to begin to act as a deterrent. Since it began in 2005, the market price has rarely been in double figures due to deliberate manipulation by governments to protect their own corporations, and the EU did virtually nothing to prevent this. Emissions traders in the City and elsewhere made a fortune in the process.

And this is only half the story. For the first few years of its operation, virtually all the permits to pollute were handed out for free, falling to 96% in the second phase until 2012. The EU’s intention was to reduce this figure significantly after the scheme had bedded in. But in its present phase that runs until 2020 it has been estimated that 53% of permits will still be given away (Carbon Brief website). In other words, the majority of firms have never had to pay a penny for their permits to pollute, while the minority that do pay a figure far below one that will act as a deterrent.

The result is that this policy has had no effect on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Remainers point to the fall in EU emissions that has taken place, but this is due mainly to the process of deindustrialisation in which polluting industries have relocated to China and other low-wage countries with lax regulations. The economic crisis in 2008 also significantly checked the rise of emissions for a time.

Tory right-wingers are serious about trying to make a bonfire of environmental regulations after Brexit to an even greater extent than has already been done, and they will have to be fought. At the same time, it is probable that the majority of the capitalist class will not want go down this route because it would mean cutting links to the European market.

The approach of May, who has promised to retain all existing laws, also represents a serious threat. There are indications that Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have learnt from the EU experience. They imagine they can have their cake and eat it by keeping present regulations in place on paper – thereby maintaining access to the EU market – but weakening enforcement mechanisms so that firms can flout them easily. Regulatory bodies, such as the Environment Agency and its Scottish and Welsh counterparts, have already been significantly eroded in terms of resources and expertise.

None of these factions – Tory right, remainers, May, etc – has any intention of removing the profit motive, the one essential prerequisite for tackling environmental threats. Jeremy Corbyn has pointed to a different route of democratic control and public ownership that could be effective. This is very welcome. However, particularly on the issue of the environment and global warming, the piecemeal measures he has put forward so far would only have a limited impact. The big corporations would find ways to continue to pollute. Tackling the power of these interests head on is the only way to address the environmental threat to the planet.

Pete Dickenson

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