The union-backed 'Time To Act' coalition climate march in central London, March 7, 2015. Photo: David Cliff
If we want to continue the fight against climate change, Britain is ‘Stronger In’
Earlier this week, the former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson made a speech in which he argued that leaving the EU would improve our environment. The speech was little reported, even less debated, which is a shame. The economy, immigration and sovereignty may be the biggest issues facing us in the forthcoming referendum, but if climate change is literally the most important challenge facing the world, the arguments need a hearing.
Paterson argued that, in his words, “Britain has traditionally been a leader in environmental protection, and has passed green laws since before two-thirds of EU member states existed as countries.” Citing the 1848 Public Health Act, the creation of the National Trust in 1907 and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949, Paterson says that “to suggest that UK environment policy would be inadequate outside the EU is bizarre bordering on the insulting”.
Owen Paterson argued that environmental policy became an official competence of the EU in 1987, seeking a level playing field “to avoid any one member state gaining a trading advantage through adopting less onerous standards than its competitors”. Even Paterson accepts that this was “reasonable in theory” while arguing that it was unsuitable in practice, because of different terrains and natural environments across the continent.
Paterson takes aim at those seeking to influence EU policy: “The centralised nature of the EU incentivises lobbying by large companies and groups, and Brussels in turn funds NGOs and charities, which in turn lobby it.” As examples, the RSPB, we are told, is funded to the tune of £15m, while the WWF enjoys £50m of European Union money.
As you can probably guess, I disagree with just about every word spoken by Owen Paterson, but it was a thoughtful speech and is in need of a response. So let’s address those three issues – Britain’s leadership on environmental policy, the idea of a level playing field, and the influence of companies and green groups on EU environment policy – in turn.
On Britain’s leadership, since we industrialised before the rest of Europe, it is not surprising that we needed legislation to protect citizens from pollution at an earlier stage too. I am aware of a belief among some Conservatives, with some justification, that climate change has forced a concern for the natural environment off the agenda. Yet things changed in the 1970s: that was the time that the Yale University economist, William Nordhaus, drew the world’s attention to the danger of global temperatures rising by more than two degrees above pre-industrial levels. Green issues, as we now know them, became a concern first among committed activists and then, little by little, among the wider population. The challenge we face today is of a different order to that which we faced a hundred years ago.
One Conservative who gets this is Lord Deben, the former John Selwyn Gummer, who was described by Friends of the Earth as “the best environment secretary we have ever had”. At an awards ceremony for excellence in recycling and waste management last month, Deben told his audience that he had first become excited about recycling when the UK was described as the ‘dirty man of Europe’ due to its poor recycling rates in the early 1990s. Deben added: “It was the pressure of the European Union that brought us to the position we are today. We pressurised our colleagues to do other things which we are better at.”
This challenges Owen Paterson’s argument that the UK has always been on the side of the angels when it comes to environmental protection. But where we are, as Lord Deben said, better than others, we can use our influence, and our voting power in Brussels, to push up standards. This is the logic behind President Obama’s intervention in the EU debate, when he said: “I don’t believe the EU moderates Britain’s influence in the world. It magnifies it.”
Owen Paterson accepts the value of a level playing field on environmental rights in theory, in order to avoid a race to the bottom, but argues that in practice this is too inflexible. Perhaps this is progress: in the dying days of John Major’s government, the Conservatives weren’t so keen on a level playing field when it came to employment rights. They opted out of the social chapter, arguing that this allowed a flexibility in job creation that would give the UK an advantage over European competitors. If Conservatives now accept that a race to the bottom is a bad thing, I’m pleased.
It is certainly very important to have common standards on environmental policy, in order to avoid so-called carbon leakage. This is the phenomenon that, rather than find cleaner methods of production in response to environmental standards, companies will move their production activity to countries with lower regulatory standards. The first country loses the jobs, the second country gains them and the same, perhaps even more, carbon is pumped into the atmosphere. And if Europe can speak with one voice, as a big player on the world stage, capable of punching the weight of the US or China, we can seek to export those higher standards still further. This is what the aforementioned Lord Deben meant when he told the IPPR in March, “The thing is the European Union is the largest trading group in the world – if it uses its power to set international standards then the world changes. What we need is an increasing power for Britain – greater sovereignty, a stronger voice, and that we get inside the European Union.”
Owen Paterson may well have a point that a level playing field is inflexible in the face of differing environmental terrains. If that is the case, let’s try to fix it. Like everyone I know who travels to Brussels for work, I can get exasperated by a sense of bureaucracy and inflexibility. Such frustration isn’t the preserve of eurosceptics. Finding a balance between flexibility and rules strong enough that they can’t be dodged will always be difficult, but surely the answer cannot be to ditch the EU, with all the trade and jobs that goes with it.
But enough of Conservative arguments. The TUC has its own, distinct reasons for supporting the UK’s continued membership of the European Union. One of them is that the EU, albeit imperfectly, tries to adopt a social partnership approach to its policy-making. The “large companies and groups” that “lobby” the EC, as Owen Paterson puts it, are the representatives of businesses which create thousands of jobs. In an age of professional politicians and officials, allowing the voice of business a say in how law is developed is surely helpful. To give balance, trade unions also have a voice, giving us the chance to warn how some proposals might harm – and others might benefit – working people across Europe. If WWF and the RSPB are also heard, are these not experts on environmental issues whose knowledge can be of benefit to good policy-making?
To give an example of our voice, trade unions have been calling for a ‘just transition’ towards a low carbon and resource efficient economy. Shifting to a sustainable economy over the medium to longer term is essential, but any major change produces winners and losers and experience teaches that the poorest can lose the most. At a European level, we have called for financial and other support to be given the workers in regions dependent on carbon intensive industries to help them find new jobs.
Trade unions don’t get everything we want in Europe and the European Union is far from perfect and in need of reform. But a trading block of 500m people, committed to a move towards sustainable industry, is a trading block worth having. The message is clear: if we want to continue the fight against climate change, Britain is ‘Stronger In’.