Interview: Roseanna Cunningham on what Brexit means for the environment

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 23 November 2017 in Inside Politics

Exclusive interview with the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform

Roseanna Cunningham - image credit: David Anderson

Roseanna Cunningham looks troubled. Gesticulating around the table as she speaks, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform is running through a long list of looming uncertainties for her portfolio. Scrolling down her tablet, she reels through the areas causing her concern.

“Air quality, biodiversity, chemicals, flood risk management, marine environment, natural environment, biodiversity, pesticides, waste packaging and product regulations, waste producer responsibility regulations, water quality, water resources, land use,” she says, before pausing for breath.

There is, of course, plenty within her portfolio for her to worry about. With a brief covering everything from conservation to land reform, Cunningham is responsible for marine planning, air quality, flooding and crown estates as well as being tasked with reducing Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions, without holding direct power over key sectors such as energy, transport or agriculture.

Meanwhile, a climate change sceptic sits in the White House at a critical moment in global efforts to tackle climate change. Cunningham spent last week in Bonn, representing the Scottish Government at the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP 23) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and before that, she was meeting with members of the ‘Green 10’ – ten of the largest European environmental organisations and networks. Given the current state of the world, it’s fair to surmise that both meetings will have been slightly tense ones.

But it’s Brexit and its effect on her list of policy areas which is preoccupying the cabinet secretary. Last year, in the wake of the vote to leave the EU, Cunningham used an appearance at the Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee to warn that the impact of the decision on areas of environmental policy represented a “big unknown”.

With 80 per cent of Scottish environmental legislation founded in EU law, concern over what Brexit will mean for Scotland has only increased. A year later, Cunningham used a speech to warn that the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which will transfer EU legislation into UK law, “directly threatened” Scotland’s ambitions on protecting the natural environment and mitigating climate change.

Talking to Holyrood, and running through the parts of the environment brief which will be affected by Brexit – almost all of it, judging from her list – the cabinet secretary seems genuinely troubled by what the future might hold. If Brexit was worrying her last summer, it seems that now, to quote the Prime Minister, nothing has changed.

Reacting to the vote, Cunningham held meetings with relevant agencies – SNH, SEPA and Marine Scotland – as well as representatives from industry and the third sector, before convening talks again a year later in an effort to gauge how feeling had changed. “Last year, it was really just about that initial ‘what the hell?’ and ‘what’s going to happen now?’” she says.

“Last year, we split everybody up into groups and we tasked them to think about the cons, and [to] see if they could come up with pros as well.

“In a sense, we don’t actually know a whole heck of a lot more, but everybody has watched the progress or otherwise of what’s happening and folk are beginning to pick up on some of the mood music around it. We do now have the UK Government’s list of 111 competencies that they believe will come from Brussels and land at Westminster and almost a third of them relate in some way to this portfolio – so environment, energy, things like that. It’s hardly a secret that, government to government, it’s an extremely difficult situation.

“Now last year, I said we were going to maintain the standards that we reached, notwithstanding whether or not Brussels was still there. This year, I suppose we’re moving it on to say, it’s not just about maintenance of the status quo because as the years go by, the status quo will [change], so in a sense, there’s also a discussion to be had about how we future proof, how we keep moving forwards in terms of our environmental standards, against a backdrop where the framework is no longer set by Brussels, and a complete uncertainty about what’s going to take its place and why. The concern is about what the drive to get trade agreements, any trade agreements, means in terms of the perceived danger that some of our standards will get traded off. There’s still a huge amount of uncertainty.”

With environmental groups vocal in their disquiet over the prospect of the UK using Brexit as an opportunity to weaken environmental protections, the news that the Scottish Government will continue to match EU standards will come as a relief.

A cynic, though, might see other reasons for the decision, not least that if Scotland was going to become an independent country at some point, and if it wanted to re-join the EU, it would need to meet the bloc’s standards to do so. In that sense, it would probably be sensible to keep up with changing European environmental standards following Brexit.

“Well, yes, there’s that, but secondly, the EU is doing it at a level which is across a whole number of countries. Everybody understands that. Some of what has to happen in terms of the environment is global. If countries all simply do things on their own, without regard to anybody else, then we’re not going to make the achievements. So we’re thinking, well, governance is always an issue when you start to get into that kind of debate, so the EU provided that high level of governance across 28 different nations who were expected to achieve a standard.”

So how realistic is the prospect of the UK Government dropping regulatory standards in pursuit of trade agreements with places like the United States?

“I think everybody is anxious about what’s actually going to happen. The anxiety is greater because of all the talk around trade agreements and what the trade agreements will mean and what will be expected to be our side of that deal – and it’s understandable that people are anxious. The UK gets caught in the middle because if you do a trade agreement with the US, they want you to ditch certain standards, and you don’t then get to trade with the EU, because to trade with the EU, you have to comply with the EU standards. That’s a big conundrum there.”

While these concerns have grown within the Scottish Government, most media interest has focused on the chaos at the heart of the UK cabinet – on Theresa May’s soundbites and travails, as well as, in a Scottish context, what appear to be increasingly strained relations between Bute House and Number Ten. Cunningham is obviously apprehensive about the future, but how has she found talks with her UK counterparts? Has she been cooperating with UK Environment Secretary, and fellow Scot, Michael Gove?

“I’ve only met him once. Michael Gove is the key Defra minister but because my portfolio in UK terms is spread over two departments – the climate change brief isn’t in DEFRA, climate change is in BEIS [Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy], and so, I have met Michael Gove, [but] I haven’t met the BEIS secretary, Claire Perry, yet.”

Cunningham pauses and sighs. She looks exasperated.

“I mean, these meetings aren’t, in my view, productive. They’re not really conversations about what’s going to happen, for example [within] the 111 competencies, one is land use and another one is flood risk management. Now we have an entire, well thought out, really good, functioning thing that we’ve done here in Scotland [on flooding] and suddenly it’s like, hang on, what does that mean now? And there’s no conversation around, ‘well, what’s that actually going to mean in practice?’

“For example, the withdrawal from Euratom means that as of March 2019, that whole level of governance of nuclear waste is gone. There’s no indication of what it’s going to be replaced by. There’s a big question that I think actually lots more of us need to be asking: ‘Well, we’re now 18 months from Brexit, where’s the work being done to put in place the infrastructure that will be necessary to continue into that?’ There’s nothing.”

It’s true that, with 18 months left until the UK leaves the EU – giving negotiators around a year to reach a deal – there is very little by way of progress. Prominent remain voices have expressed concern, but is this is just how negotiation works? After all, international talks tend to move very slowly up until the last minute, and so it may be natural that progress appears stalled. Is this just how the EU operates, and will we still see things come together at the last minute?

Cunningham laughs. “I would like to think that that was the plan but I’m not sure it is! I haven’t seen much evidence that there is any sense [of an agreement emerging].”

Still, it may not all be doom and gloom. In fact, there are some groups which will see Brexit as a big opportunity. The fishing industry was supportive of Leave, for example, with the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation arguing that the chance to leave the Common Fisheries Policy offered “a huge opportunity to reassert control of our waters and to establish once and for all a sensible, practicable new fisheries management regime”.

Cunningham nods. “Yes, but what are the problems they want to get rid of? Because the minute you start looking at what they think they can achieve… is it the expulsion of foreign boats? Well, you know, there still has to be a kind of deal done as to how that’s going to be managed and, again, there isn’t any clarity around that. There’s a kind of high level rhetoric which is allowed to run but the reality is, in practice, if there is a deal being done, all sorts of things will be in the pot to be part of that deal.

“Different things will be of more importance to certain parts of the EU but it’s very difficult for me to imagine that the likes of Spain and Portugal are going to sit quietly and watch their fishing industry effectively decimated because they’ve no longer got access to UK waters – which suggests to me that somewhere along the line, there will be some kind of deal done.”

It all sounds pretty stressful, even if Brexit minister, Mike Russell – one of Cunningham’s predecessors – has previously described the environment brief as the ‘best job in government’. Is that still true? Or have the complications brought by Brexit taken the shine off?

Cunningham chuckles to herself. “I’ve never believed it was anything other than hard work and that won’t stop! It’s the best job in government because it’s an area of policy where you’re always having to be thinking about the future. I remember Mike Russell, when he left and I took over, he said, ‘you’re really lucky, best job in government’ and I think every environment minister feels the same. I was really pleased to be appointed back into [it], it’s not exactly the same portfolio, it’s broader, and it’s not without very significant challenges, but I think the thing here is you really feel that you can effect some positive change – a positive difference.

“Scotland’s got a really good story to tell and the Programme for Government has been a huge step forward because for the first time, a government has put environment, not as a ‘there’s the economy, there’s the environment’, but actually said these two things are interlinked, you can’t separate the one from the other, and that’s a really important statement from any government.”

But if these issues are all interconnected – with policy in finance, agriculture, energy and transport all holding a direct bearing on Cunningham’s brief – does she ever get frustrated by the actions of other figures across the cabinet table?

Emissions have been stubbornly high in the transport sector, for example, despite strong action in other areas to help mitigate the effects of climate change.

“The problem with this job is you could effectively become the cab sec for almost everything; I have to make a decision,” she says. “I know what you’re saying about transport, but you’d probably say the same thing about energy. I mean, my job is about arguing and setting the higher level and then my colleagues, in terms of particularly climate change and other aspects of the portfolio, are about the actual, aspirational, delivery of it.

“I dare say people could make an argument for the portfolio swallowing up other things but it would become impossible, I think. It would become incredibly unwieldy and nobody can be the cabinet secretary for everything. Well, they can, but they’re called the First Minister.”

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