Extinction Rebellion protesters took off their clothes in the House of Commons gallery to draw politicians’ attention to the ongoing and ever more serious climate and ecological crisis. Intentionally or not, this display of discontent took place while MPs were debating Brexit.
While few of us would be brave enough to protest in this way, most environmentalists sympathise with the sentiment that prompted this action. The reality is that we are in the midst of a grave ecological crisis which threatens our way of life and the future of our planet.
Yet exiting the EU makes little sense when looking at the implications for environmental protections. EU environmental policies have had a fundamentally positive effect for our natural environment.
In Scotland, compared to the early 1990s, the number of polluted rivers has been halved; air pollution has decreased; waste management improved; and Scotland’s most precious areas for our unique wildlife are protected and receive EU support through dedicated funding.
The prospect of Brexit risks undermining key environmental laws on which we depend and on which we need to build if we are to protect our planet.
This is why more than 35 of Scotland’s environmental charities have launched the Fight for Scotland’s Nature campaign, calling for a Scottish Environment Act.
With 80 percent of Scotland’s environmental legislation stemming from the EU, the task of ensuring that no important protections are lost as we exit the EU is a herculean one.
First, the EU has provided clear guiding principles for how environmental legislation should be developed.
The four EU principles of precaution, prevention, rectification of pollution at source and ‘polluter pays’ are essential to maintaining Scotland’s environmental achievements, as the Scottish Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham has said on numerous occasions.
Among other things, these principles ensure that effective and timely action is taken when there is emerging evidence about the environmental impacts of a product, and that those who pollute the environment are responsible for bearing the costs of cleaning it.
These four EU environmental principles have shaped Scotland’s environment, from action against fracking to banning GM products. They are an indispensable element of our approach to environmental protection, and we need to retain them in domestic law.
Second, EU bodies have been able to monitor, report, scrutinise and enforce EU environmental laws, enhancing their effectiveness; citizens have also been also afforded a hassle-free way of registering complaints where they had evidence that legislation was not implemented.
Outside of the EU, UK laws will not operate under those same structures, and are likely to be left much weaker and less effective. It is clear that if legal protections are not enforced on the ground, they have little value.
The magnitude of this loss is not talked about nearly as much as it should be.
Leaving the EU will create a fundamental gap in the power of ordinary citizens to raise concerns about the implementation of environmental protections. In other words, our right to challenge breaches of environmental law will be significantly curtailed.
With the majority of domestic environmental protections stemming from EU laws, citizens and organisations can submit complaints to the European Commission. The Commission then investigates the complaints and takes action, including referring the relevant national authority to the European Court of Justice.
One of the great advantages of this process is that it’s affordable for citizens and charities, unlike a domestic court case. It also allows cases to be judged on merit, whereas an appeal in UK courts can only look at procedural errors.
At present, the UK is being challenged on its weak air quality laws, which don’t meet EU standards for clean air.
So, exiting the EU means we will automatically lose access to those important routes that have helped us guarantee our rights. We urgently need to build new institutional arrangements to compensate for that loss.
Third, the EU provides a number of forward-looking policies and strategies. In 2017, the Scottish Government committed itself to formulating the first Scottish Environment Strategy, but this is yet to materialise. And unlike the EU, this strategy won’t provide legally binding targets for environmental improvement.
So, no matter what the outcome of Brexit, we need to make sure that our environment does not suffer as a result. On the contrary, we should be committing our governments to more ambitious action.
In England, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary of State has committed to an Environment Bill to start to address these issues as well as set ambitions for the future.
In Scotland, there is no such commitment despite the fact that environmental policy is devolved. In February, the Scottish Government issued a consultation on the future of environmental principles and governance. Regrettably, the proposals do not meet the rhetoric of ‘maintaining or enhancing EU protections’.
Scottish charities are calling for a Scottish Environment Act to:
- Embed EU and international environmental principles in Scots law so that they can underpin all environmental decision-making.
- Create an independent and well-resourced watchdog to enforce environmental protections in the same way that the European Commission and Court of Justice do today.
- Set clear and ambitious targets for environmental protection alongside adequate financial resources.
We are hoping people in Scotland and across the UK will join our call for ambitious action to protect our environment by signing our petition.
Scotland’s amazing nature, with so many international accolades for its beauty, is our single greatest national asset.
Its breath-taking landscapes, from the Caledonian pine forests to the Flow Country’s peatlands and from our seabirds, dolphins and diverse seabed of kelp forests and cold-water corals are a joy to behold, but they also support our rural and coastal communities.
And yet, already, environmental protections are being eroded. In January 2019, the Scottish Government issued revised planning guidance undermining international standards for the protection of Scotland’s globally important wetlands.
These beautiful areas are home to some of Scotland’s unique and endangered wildlife, such as the hen harrier, the Arctic skua and the curlew. Wetlands are also key to helping us tackle climate change as they can absorb and store tonnes of carbon.
The stakes are higher than ever before. We need legally binding commitments from the Scottish government to ensure environmental protections don’t regress.
With only one month left to respond to the consultation which closes on 11 May, it is critically important that we send the Scottish Government a clear message.
Daphne Vlastari is the advocacy manager for Scottish Environment LINK, Scotland’s network of environment organisations. With over 35 member bodies, LINK is the voice of Scotland’s environmental community.
Image: © Lister Cumming