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by Ian Duncan MEP
06 April 2017
Ian Duncan: Brexit will bring more effective environmental protection

Ian Duncan: Brexit will bring more effective environmental protection

In 2015, a scandal broke which shook the very foundations of EU environmental regulation. Volkswagen had been installing ‘cheat devices’ in their cars, devices which depressed tailpipe emissions under test conditions but did nothing to limit emissions on the road. Dieselgate, as it was quickly dubbed, involved a staggering 11 million cars.

I was appointed to the European Parliament’s Committee of Inquiry and having listened to more hours of evidence than I care to recall I can confirm it is a genuine scandal. As a result of VW’s cheat devices, many of its diesel engines emitted up to 14 times the EU’s legal limit for nitrous oxide emissions. In the UK alone, nitrous oxide emissions have been estimated to cause more than 23,000 premature deaths each year.

It further transpired that both the European Commission and the Parliament had been warned about the use of such devices. The two German MEPs instrumental in drafting the original legislation, Bernd Lange and Matthias Groote, actually declined to give evidence to the Committee.

However, perhaps the greatest scandal for the EU was the fact that the crime was not uncovered by any European agency or authority, despite the warnings. It was the US Environmental Protection Agency which revealed the crime. There was a certain irony that when the scandal came to light my inbox was swamped with letters from anti-TTIP (EU-US Free Trade Agreement) protestors demanding that I fight the erosion of EU environmental standards down to American levels.

The EU is quickly trying to change the law. My Conservative colleague, Dan Dalton MEP, is the lead negotiator on the reforms that should go a long way to stop the abuses of major car manufacturers. Nonetheless, the EU’s environmental credentials have taken something of a knock.

In a roundabout way this brings me to Brexit and its implications for the UK's environmental standards and protections.  The Scottish Parliament’s Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform Committee is currently investigating this very issue. According to several witnesses, only UK membership of the EU has prevented a serious erosion of environmental protections. As a member of the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, I think this assertion deserves closer scrutiny.

Environmental protection and the UK’s membership of the EU came of age in the early seventies and both have advanced in lock step since. It was at the Paris EEC summit of 1972 that the Commission was first asked to draw up a programme for environmental protection. The US was slightly ahead of the game, its Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970. There is little doubt that in a counterfactual world, the UK’s environmental protections would have been driven by national agencies. However, membership of the EU saw the pooling of environmental sovereignty and policy making vested in Brussels.

So how is the EU doing on environmental protection? Truth be told, its record is patchy. Whilst regulations regularly emerge from the EU sausage making machine, the implementation and enforcement, which depend upon the commitment of the Member State, are often half-hearted or perfunctory. The UK is above the EU average for many of the key environmental indicators. In 2015, the UK was responsible for just four per cent of the total 280 environmental infringements recorded by the Commission, well below the EU average

As to the question of EU leadership, there is often a gulf between rhetoric and reality.

As an MEP I have focused on climate change. I was in Paris the night the world came together and agreed the historic climate change accord. Whilst the European Commission was instrumental in brokering the deal, the European Council of Member States has failed to live up to its side of the agreement. The Council is still labouring under the climate targets it set back in 2014.

The UK was, in fact, the first EU nation to establish a national framework for legally-binding emission reduction targets. In approving the Fifth Carbon Budget, enshrining in law a 57 per cent emissions reduction target by 2032; in ratifying the Paris Agreement; and through the forthcoming Clean Growth Plan; the UK maintains a clear leadership position in climate change. The UK is not withdrawing from its international obligations on climate change, its leading them.  Scotland too continues to lead on climate change. Witness the new draft Climate Change Plan and Energy Strategy, considerably ahead of the EU targets.

Such is the contribution of the UK to the EU’s climate ambitions that, in many ways, Brexit could have a far more deleterious impact on the continent than on the UK. I am currently leading the Parliament’s reform of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.  Based upon the polluter pays principle, the aim of the reform is to secure a meaningful price for carbon emissions in a trading market. Underpinning the reform is a substantial fiscal transfer from the West to the former communist states of the East. The UK’s potential contribution to the Solidarity Funds post-2020 is conservatively estimated at €3bn. Without it Poland and other Member States wrestling with soviet-era technology will struggle.

Alongside the carbon market, EU States also share the burden for reducing emissions from ‘non-traded’ sectors like buildings and transport. The aim of the effort share is to achieve EU-wide emissions reductions of 30 per cent from non-traded sectors by 2030. The UK has been allocated a minus 37 per cent target domestically whilst Bulgaria, for example, has room to actually increase its non-ETS emissions by two per cent. Take the UK out of the effort sharing discussions and the remaining EU 27 will be left with a lot more to do.

Outside the EU, the UK will continue to be a climate change leader. It will continue to meet its global environmental commitments and it will continue to be a significant contributor to UN environmental schemes. It will continue to maintain high standards of environmental protection, with programmes tailored specifically to the UK and its particular environmental needs. It will be able to respond more quickly to threats, rather than progressing at the pace of the slowest camel in the train.

Yes, Brexit may bring uncertainty, but it’s an uncertainty littered with opportunities to do things better.

Ian Duncan is Conservative MEP for Scotland

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