Climate change and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit loom over environment and rural affairs

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 11 September 2019 in Inside Politics

A year in which international concerns over Brexit and climate change overshadowed the domestic

Image credit: Holyrood

No deal is better than a bad deal. That was the line, uttered by Theresa May, ad nauseam, as she attempted to present a hardline stance to European leaders and critics alike.

Over and over she repeated it, throughout the course of 2017 and 2018. As she explained in her Lancaster House speech: “Britain wants to remain a good friend and neighbour to Europe. Yet I know there are some voices calling for a punitive deal that punishes Britain and discourages other countries from taking the same path.

“That would be an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe. And it would not be the act of a friend. Britain would not – indeed we could not – accept such an approach. And while I am confident that this scenario need never arise, I am equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.”

The PM’s no-deal rhetoric cooled over time – by May this year she claimed, “When I first made that reference I was talking in the abstract” – and MPs then voted, in March, by 312 to 308, to reject a no-deal Brexit under any circumstances.

Theresa May didn’t want a no-deal Brexit. MPs didn’t want a no-deal Brexit. The Scottish Government didn’t, and still doesn’t, want a no-deal Brexit. But with the new prime minister, Boris Johnson, intent on leaving the EU on 31 October, regardless of the outcome of talks, the prospect is still growing.

For Scotland, the consequences look devastating. But while voices from across the Scottish Government express concern, the rural economy is perhaps the most at risk, with a lack of information over future trade relationships, access to European markets, and the future ability to attract the European workers upon whom industries desperately rely, mixing together to create a powerful cocktail of uncertainty.

In fact, the Scottish food and drink industry has been performing well over the last few years, with Scottish Annual Business Statistics showing gross value added in the food and drink sector with growth increasing by 6.3 per cent in 2017. The Scottish economy grew by 0.5 per cent during the first quarter of 2019, with food and drink, as well as pharmaceuticals, accounting for more than half of that.

The Scottish food and drink sector employs around 45,000 people, but hundreds of thousands of jobs are reliant on the industry. And while, for its supporters, Brexit was presented as an opportunity to address perceived failings, not least in fishing and agriculture, nerves are clearly growing, with a survey from the NFUS, released in June, finding that just 11 per cent of its members see a no-deal Brexit as likely to have a ‘positive’ or ‘very positive’ impact on their business, and 64 per cent viewing it as ‘negative’ or ‘very negative’.

The NFUS found 45 per cent of respondents had already experienced Brexit-related impacts, either directly or indirectly, since the referendum, with the main issues stemming from Brexit increasing costs of inputs, cited by 54 per cent of respondents, that it was putting off new investments, at 51 per cent, putting off expansion in the business, at 35 per cent, and creating difficulty in recruiting or retaining staff, referenced by 12 per cent of respondents. And while many have already experienced the effects, the survey found a wide-ranging expectation that those who had not yet encountered these obstacles would do so after Brexit day.

Speaking to Holyrood earlier this year, Fergus Ewing was scathing in his assessment of the UK’s approach to leaving the EU, amid reports a no-deal exit could bring food shortages.

As he put it: “Of course, no one knows, if there is a no deal, how long the damage could continue without some sort of practical arrangements being put into force. So I think mitigation is possible, to a certain extent, but not to a full extent, and it’s impossible to know how effective it is capable of being at this stage because so many of the risks are imponderable or unclear.

“All we can do is what we are doing, behave as a responsible government. Instead of spending our time looking at the issues of the day and taking things forward in a positive way, we’ve got to act defensively, reactively, to the Brexit no-deal issues. Myself and colleagues are having to spend – and we are not complaining about it – but we are having to divert our attention from other things that, arguably, we should be focusing on to drive forward the rural economy, for example. Instead, we are having to deal with this threat to the rural economy, and it is a very frustrating situation. It has engulfed the UK Government. The whole of the UK Government is almost in a state of semi-stasis. Brexit is a virus which has steadily grown and infected all other areas of government activity.”

But while the effect of leaving the EU consumed efforts across government, it was probably only Roseanna Cunningham’s brief which rivalled Ewing’s in terms of the impact of Brexit. The Environment Secretary had been equally critical of the effect of the leave vote – in her case, for creating uncertainty over environmental regulation, as well as funding – yet with the 2016/17 Programme for Government introducing plans for a raft of environmental policies, including the introduction of low emission zones in each of Scotland’s cities, phasing out new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032, and to develop a deposit return scheme (DRS) for drinks containers, policymakers were forced to split efforts between the international and the domestic. But, while reactions to the policies varied – air pollution campaigners have been highly critical of the scale of ambition contained in low emission zones plans, while proposals for a DRS have been more widely welcomed – at least there was good news in renewables, as new UK Government figures from the first quarter of 2019 showed Scotland’s renewable electricity generation reached record levels, providing enough energy to power 88 per cent of Scottish households for a year.

Over the last year, the impact of climate change has become even harder to ignore, particularly following the devastation caused across southern Africa by extreme weather events such as Cyclone Idai, bringing a renewed urgency to the need to move towards a low-carbon economy. In this context, proof of Scotland’s progress in emissions reduction was welcome.

Yet although the latest figures, released in June, showed total emissions fell by 3.3 per cent during 2017, Scotland’s participation in the EU-wide Emissions Trading System meant adjusted emissions, used for setting targets, increased by 3.7 per cent.

The drop was driven by decreases in coal consumption in the power sector and a fall in the use of fossil fuels in the chemical industry, but transport emissions remained stubbornly high. They have increased each year since 2010, with a further two per cent increase overall in 2016. They then increased by 2.2 per cent between 2016 and 2017.

The figures came amid an explosion in civil disobedience, generated by growing anger over global inaction on climate change, in both Scotland and beyond. Kids across Scotland walked out of school, while Extinction Rebellion, a new climate protest movement, took to the streets – taking over cities around the world, shutting down roads, transport hubs, and at one point, even choosing to strip naked and glue themselves to the visitors’ gallery in the House of Commons.

One protest in Edinburgh, which saw 29 people arrested for refusing to move, shut down North Bridge for hours. At another point, they closed down the Scottish Parliament chamber. A few weeks after that, around 300 took part in a mass ‘die-in’ protest – they all lay down and pretended to be dead in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Protestors lay there for about 20 minutes, underneath ‘Dippy’, the skeleton copy of a diplodocus, with signs asking, ‘Are we next?’ Finally, with parliament on the edge of breaking up for recess, dozens of tents appeared in the grounds, as Extinction Rebellion launched a week-long sit-in on the grounds.

With the new session upon us, these protests will not go away. Public concern is rising. In fact, growing alarm even prompted Nicola Sturgeon to declare a ‘climate emergency’ at  party conference, just weeks after her MSPs voted down a motion from the Greens declaring the same thing. The Scottish Government then confirmed amendments had been lodged to the Climate Change Bill to set a legally binding target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045 at the latest, with Scotland becoming carbon neutral by 2040.

Yet campaigners were quick to ask for more detail, and questions will continue. As Friends of the Earth Scotland director Dr Richard Dixon put it: “We have known for years that there is a climate emergency, what we need now is an emergency response.”

And so, yet again, the international reached into the domestic. Farmers watch as the Brexit deadline approaches, protestors, globally, rail against a lack of international action on climate change, and all the while the Scottish Government continues its attempts to move domestic policy forward.

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