Beyond the Tower of Babel …

Danube_at_Vienna_May19

A week after I return from China, I was off on my travels again; this time to Vienna for a workshop between molecular ecology specialists and ECOSTAT, the committee of Member State representatives who oversee ecological aspects of Water Framework Directive implementation.   As ever, I found some time to visit some art galleries around the meeting and, as Vienna has one of the most impressive collections of paintings by Pieter Brueghel, I could not resist spending some time in front of his “Tower of Babel”.  A few years ago I cheerfully included this picture in a talk on EU ecological assessment methods, as we tried to make sense of the myriad national approaches.   Three years after the Brexit vote, however, it seems to better reflect UK domestic politics where, ironically, language is one of the few things that all protagonists do have in common.

The River Danube seems to encapsulate the reasons why Europe needs collaborative thinking on the state of the environment.  It is the second longest river in Europe, after the Volga, and flows through ten countries, with tributaries extending into nine more.   Eight of the nine countries through which the river flows are members of the EU (the ninth, Serbia, is in the process of joining) so the river represents a case study, of sorts, on whether EU environmental policies actually work.   This is not just an academic question: ecologists are generally in favour of integrated management of entire catchments whilst the EU operates on a principle of “subsidiarity”, which means that decision-making is devolved to the lowest competent authority (individual Member States in the case of the environment).   Finding the right balance between these principles takes a lot of patient discussion and is one reason why EU decision-making can appear to be agonisingly slow.

Breughel_Tower_of_Babel

Pieter Bruegel’s “Tower of Babel” in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

And there are more problems: the Water Framework Directive evaluates the sustainability of water bodies by their naturalness yet very large rivers such as the Danube have been very heavily modified by human use for centuries.   The river has been broadened, deepened and impounded, and its banks have been straightened and strengthened in order to make it navigable, and there is a huge human population, with associated industry, living on its banks.  The stretch of the Danube along which I walked on my last morning in Vienna was also lined with embankments to protect the surrounding land from flooding but these, at the same time, cut the river off from the ecological benefits of the floodplain.

What hope for a large river such as the Danube in the face of all these challenges?   First of all, when dealing with rivers such as these we need to adjust our expectations, recognising that they are so central to the economic life of the regions through which they flow that there are limits to their capacity to ever resemble truly natural rivers.   Once we have done this, we can start to unpick the challenges that can be addressed by individual Member States.  In the case of water quality, in particular, the story for the Danube is encouraging and European environmental legislation has played its role in this process.  By the time the Danube reaches the borders with Romania, for example, nutrient concentrations are low enough for many of the benthic algal-communities to meet criteria for “good ecological status”.

You can see this in the graph below, from a paper that we’ve published recently.   The Romanian sites are largely clustered at the top left hand side of the graph, relative to data from other countries – indicating low phosphorus concentrations and good ecology (expressed as “ecological quality ratios”, EQRs).   Thanks to an extensive exercise that took place a few years before I started grappling with the Romanian data, we already had a consensus view of the EQR boundaries for high and good status, and most of the Romanian data fits into the band representing “good status”.  That’s encouraging and whilst these communities are just one element of a much more complex ecosystem, but it is a clear step in the right direction.

RO_VLR_intercalibration

The relationship between dissolved phosphorus and ecological status of the phytobenthos (expressed as the Ecological Quality Ratio, EQR, based on the intercalibration common metric (which gives a harmonised view of status between Member States).   Horizontal lines show the average position of “high” (blue) and “good” (green) status boundaries.   RO = Romanian data; XGIG = data from other Member States.   See Kelly et al. (2018) for more details.  

Romania is, of course, a long way downstream from where I was standing in Vienna.  Before the Danube gets there it has to cross Slovakia, Hungary and Serbia.  The river also forms the boundary between Romania and Bulgaria for about 300 kilometres, so it is important that there is joined-up thinking between those responsible for water quality on the two opposite banks.  That’s why the EU is so important for the environment on a pan-European scale.  It is easy for those of us crammed onto our insignificant archipelago in the north-west corner of the continent to overlook this, but the Danube is really a great success stories for European environmental collaboration and, indeed, a reason for staying with this ambitious project into the future.   Too late, I know, but it needs to be said.

Reference

Kelly, M.G., Chiriac, G., Soare-Minea, A., Hamchevici, C. & Birk, S. (2018).  Defining ecological status of phytobenthos in very large rivers: a case study of practical implementation of the Water Framework Directive in Romania.  Hydrobiologia 828: 353-367.

Vienna_sights_May19

Sightseeing in Vienna: Stefansdom, the historic cathedral in the city centre and the Ferris wheel at the Prater amusement park, which played a starring role in Graham Greene’s The Third Man.

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Hug a Brexiteer …

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I was hoping to start this blog, written on the original date for Brexit, noting that, in contrast to most other UK citizens, I had begun the day outside the EU but had, during the course of the morning, re-joined the Union.  The delay in the date for Brexit messes up that neat little opener but the experience of walking across the Green Line in Nicosia, from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus to the Republic of Cyprus is a sobering reminder of the way that festering resentments within communities can spiral out of control.

There are few certainties in UK politics at the moment but, based on voting patterns in the referendum, it is very likely that over 40 per cent of the population is going to be dissatisfied with the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.   I have made my own views clear in this blog and I know that some of my readers disagree with my views.   This post is not about the rights and wrongs of Brexit but about the aftermath, and how the country as a whole treats that large proportion who will almost certainly be disappointed by the outcome.

The situation in Cyprus is complex but there are parallels to Brexit in that, after 1945, the key political question concerned a union (with Greece in this case) that would have left a significant minority of the population feeling disenfranchised.  On the other hand, there is one key difference from the UK in 2019 in that the disenfranchised minority were ethnically distinct.  In 1974 the failure to find a mutually-acceptable settlement led eventually to invasion by Turkish forces and the partition of the island which persists to this day.   We in the UK should be thankful that there is no such clear “them” and “us” distinction as our politicians pick their way through the morass of possibilities.

But the absence of a physiognomic, linguistic or religious differentiator in the Brexit debate does not mean that differences – and resentments – will not persist long after a final settlement is agreed.  That means the country, once it has resolved the present Brexit stalemate, will need to think seriously about a reconciliation process to heal the divisions.   Time, alone, will not necessarily be enough; indeed, time may even sharpen the divisions, especially if the economy is not buoyant in the post-Brexit years.  I live in a liberal bubble where almost everyone I encounter is pro-EU and opposed to Brexit; however, if the UK does end up leaving the EU, there is no point in brooding over what might have been.  We will need to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down and move on.   And hug a Brexiteer.  Judging by the press reports, many of them are going to be just as disappointed as the Remainers.   At least we will have that in common

 

Last words …

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Looking back at the pessimistic post that I wrote at the end of 2017 (see: “So that was 2018 …”), I am struck by how little has changed in the course of a year.   This time last year I was bemoaning the uncertainty around Brexit and the implications of this for the environment.   A year on, there is no more clarity, with a “told-you-so” attitude amongst the remainers clashing with a head-in-the-sand response from the hard Brexiteers.  The result is a political stalemate that seems impossible to resolve in the time remaining.  The only certainty on the morning of March 30this that the country will be more divided than at any point during any point in most people’s lifetimes.   That is a pathetic legacy for our present generation of political leaders, left or right.

I passed some personal milestones during the course of the year: my trip to Cyprus means that I have now visited all 28 Member States of the European Union.  Alongside this, I have also managed to complete a literary journey around Europe, reading either a novel by a writer from each country or by someone writing about that country.  With the exception of a couple of novels by George Simeon, all have been in English, but there is a host of good fiction available in translation.  Indrek Hargla’s medieval crime novel Apothecary Melchior and the Mystery of St Olaf’s Church, for example, enlivened my visit to Tallinn in May.   Crime fiction often has, I have learned, a strong sense of time and place that can help a visitor understand a city.

Another personal milestone was the end of an almost 10-year relationship with Newcastle University, as the course I taught there came to a natural end, and the start of a new relationship with the Geography Department at Nottingham University where I am an Honorary Professor for the next three years.   I’ve also seen my 100thscientific paper appear.

I will finish with two pictures from September’s visit to Lisbon: the first shows the ornate carvings on the arches surrounding the cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery at Belém, on the outskirts of Lisbon.  Belém is the point from which the Portugese explorers set off on their voyages in the late medieval period, and Vasco de Gama is buried in the monastery church.    A short distance away, overlooking the Tagus estuary, there is the Monument to the Discoveries, which celebrates the exploits of Portugese explorers, from Henry the Navigator onwards.   Roger Crowley’s book Conquerors (Faber & Faber, 2015) describes the explorations of Vasco de Gama and his contemporaries in the late fifteenth century, and it is sobering to realise that, by the end of the medieval period, people knew more about life on the other side of the planet than they did about life in the ponds at the end of their gardens.  How much has changed over the subsequent centuries?   The microscopic world is still a closed book to many people, which is largely why I started to write this blog in the first place.

The motivations for the Portugese explorers were, however, very worldly.  They wanted to bypass established trading routes, they made unrealistic assessments of the situation in order to persuade their king to support their hair-brained schemes and they had great disdain for the cultures they encountered on their way to the fabled lands.   The Monument to the Discoveries encapsulates a sanitised version of a national ideal (it was built during the reign of the right-wing dictator Salazar) but it also speaks to our own time and place.

Belem_Sept18

Belém, near Lisbon.  Left: cloisters of the Jerónimos Monastery; right: Monument to the Discoveries.

Terms and conditions apply …

upper_Teesdale_Nov18

The draft withdrawal agreement, setting out how the UK leaves the European Union was published earlier this week, and has dominated domestic news coverage ever since.   Theresa May’s government seems to have weathered the storm – just – but the likelihood of the agreement surviving a vote in the House of Commons seems small, meaning that political uncertainty is set to continue for some time.

The agreement’s provisions for environment have received relatively little attention in the media during this period.  This is surprising, given the importance of this topic generally, and the central role that European legislation plays in our domestic environment policy.   As I have tried to offer a commentary on the Brexit process as it has unfolded (see “Environmental governance post Brexit” for the latest of these posts), I now need to steel myself for a scrutiny of the 585 page document (without even a contents page) to see what provisions have been made.

The political brouhaha has focussed around the problems surrounding the land border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the proposal that the UK and the EU remain as a single customs territory, run according to existing EU rules, for as long as it takes to achieve a satisfactory long-term solution.   The prospect of being bound into EU legislation indefinitely is what has provoked the wrath of the hard Brexiteers; however, the rest of us need to bear in mind that the proposals set out in the withdrawal agreement are not indefinite.   Once a long-term solution is agreed, then UK administrations will be free to modify legislation unless a future trade deal specifically incorporates provisions for the environment.

The European Research Group’s argument that the UK will become a “rule taker” is disingenuous because the subsidiarity principle that was introduced as part of the Maastricht Agreement means that Member States always have had considerable liberty to implement EU legislation as they see fit.   The EU legislation tends to outline the ambition and principles rather than prescribe how these are achieved.  We already have strong domestic legislation that enforces environmental policy.  I have not heard the Brexit camp offering credible alternatives to the ambition set by the EU that might suggest that the UK will be constrained in this respect.

The key passages relevant to the environment are found in Annex 4, some 356 pages into the agreement.  These commit the UK to “non-regression in the level of environmental protection” which means that environmental standards in force at the end of the transition agreement (including, importantly, “access to environmental information”) should not be diluted during the period that the UK is part of the single customs territory.  The UK is also bound to adhere to the precautionary principle, the principle that preventative action should be taken, the principle that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source; and the “polluter pays” principle. We are also required to have “a transparent system for the effective domestic monitoring, reporting, oversight and enforcement of its [environmental] obligations … by an independent and adequately resourced body or bodies” (p. 359).  This is, in effect, the new watchdog that Michael Gove has already proposed but with greater independence as it needs to have power “to conduct inquiries on its own initiative” and the right to “bring a legal action before a competent court or tribunal in the United Kingdom in an appropriate judicial procedure, with a view to seeking an adequate remedy.”  Gove’s proposals put the new environmental watchdog under the control of DEFRA, which was widely regarded as compromising its independence.

The question that remains is how much latitude a future UK government will have to deviate from the principles of EU environment legislation.   The implication is that the UK and EU will move towards a long-term trade deal and my suspicion is that a level playing field for the environment will be a pre-condition from the EU for this to happen.  This would mean that the principles set out in the withdrawal agreement would apply in the long-term (though the UK would not necessarily be bound to comply with any new EU environment legislation).  What is also not clear is whether the UK would be expected to comply with collective decisions on implementation of existing Directives (and, indeed, to participate in reaching these) in the future.  The Water Framework Directive, for example, is 18 years old, but there are still aspects of implementation that are being discussed. The EU will want the UK to stay in line with new developments; the UK should regard participation in the debates around these to be a quid pro quo.

Almost every environment professional and academic I have met feels that leaving the EU to be a colossal mistake.  However, if we accept that leaving the EU is now inevitable (I still need to be convinced that a second referendum would offer a more decisive outcome than the first), then I think the provisions for the environment set out in the withdrawal agreement are good.   Even Michael Gove, an ardent Brexiteer, has acknowledged that the EU offers strong protection for the environment, and this agreement ensures that we go forward with as strong a foundation as we have at present.   However, the prospect of this agreement passing the various hurdles in front of it are slim, so a more likely scenario at present is that the UK crashes out of the EU in March 2019 with no transition arrangement and no trade deal in place.  That would leave UK environment legislation in a far more precarious position than is the case at present.

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“Learning from mum”: Heather’s prize-winning photograph in the 2018 BSBI photography competition shows her friend Priscilla botanising in Hannah’s Meadow, Upper Teesdale.  The photograph at the top of this post shows Upper Teesdale near Widdybank Farm, earlier this week.

Environmental governance post Brexit

It is some time since I have written a post about Brexit but the time has come to re-visit one of the issues which I identified early on as a critical to UK environment policy once we have left the EU: the role of European institutions as powerful enforcers of policy (see “Who will watch the watchmen now?”).  It was a concern reflected by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee and others (see “(In)competent authority”), leading to Michael Gove proposing a new environmental watchdog part to “hold the powerful to account” (see “Michael Gove has made a sensible suggestion”).   The document in which these ideas are laid out in detail, Environmental Principles and Governance after EU Exit Consultation Document, has just appeared and it is worth taking a closer look.

First point to notice is that this document applies only to England.   Responsibility for the environment was devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the 1990s; however, as the key environmental legislation has come from Europe, their activities have had a common focus until now.   The UK administrations have worked together to ensure consistent application of the Water Framework Directive, in marked contrast to some other Member States (Belgium usually sends separate “Walloon” and “Flemish” representatives to meetings, for example).   Take away the constraint of European law and the devolved administrations are free, in principle, to develop their own environmental legislation as they feel appropriate.   There are moves towards a “common framework” for the environment but, as yet, no concrete mechanisms in place.

In many ways, this consultation document encapsulates one of the biggest contradictions of the whole Brexit process: the slow, bureaucratic and barely democratic structures of the European Union are actually rather good at managing the environment and this is precisely because they override national sovereignty.   A Member State has the right to implement EU legislation as it sees fit but the European Court of Justice acts as a powerful deterrent to any that might try to sidestep their responsibilities.   Taking back control from Brussels and recognising the sovereignty of Parliament means, in effect, that DEFRA are responsible not just for developing and implementing legislation but also for scrutinising the effectiveness of that implementation.   The risk, recognised by Michael Gove (though not in these words), is a self-affirming circle of smugness.

So the consultation document makes two important suggestions: first, that a new policy statement is made in which the environmental principles that guide policy-making and legislation are set out, and second, a new independent watchdog is set up to ensure that governments adhere to these.   The environmental principles might be set out in primary legislation or in a separate policy statement.  The former would have more teeth whilst the latter would be more flexible, allowing the evolution of these principles as scientific and technical knowledge improve.

The watchdog – “a new independent and statutory body holding government to account for the environment” – sounds like a good idea except, of course, that it is funded by, and must answer to the same government that it is holding to account.   The Government, in turn, must balance “… environmental priorities with delivering economic growth and other policy priorities such as housing” (paragraph 83) and, as a result, this new regulator would be primarily advisory, and would lack enforcement mechanisms.   It would not be an insignificant force but, at the same time, it would lack teeth.   If economic growth, for example, depended on trade agreements with the USA and China, for example, will the government be prepared to sacrifice stringent domestic environmental targets?

The irony is that one of the best indicators of the UK’s performance in any area of environmental policy is a comparison with that of other countries and the EU – via the European Environmental Agency – already provides a framework for doing this.   If the rhetoric is that the UK will perform even better after we leave then EU then, it follows, the UK’s relative position in the many “league tables” that the EEA produces should improve*.   A confident Michael Gove would, therefore, ensure that his new regulator worked as closely with the EEA as possible and, importantly, produced indicators that enabled such comparisons to be made.   My concern, again, is that, restoring UK sovereignty in these areas will create greater headroom for political meddling and spin.

Michael Gove’s appointment as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was greeted with caution by many working in the environment, given his mixed track record in his previous roles.   We were, however, cautiously optimistic as, for the first months of his tenure, he made all the right noises. He is a politician who likes the big picture and is not afraid of a grand rethink of entrenched ideas.   However, the environment is a sphere of policy where grand rhetoric is cheap and the devil lies in the detail.  The consultation on environmental principles and accountability for the environment shows up the weakness of the UK’s muddled thinking on Brexit: the EU has many faults but handing back control of the environment to a parliament whose members are slaves to short-term cycles of public opinion is unlikely to deliver a greener future any time soon.

* in practice, of course, the four administrations of the UK may need to report separately in the future.   England might well drop a couple of places whist Scotland and Wales could improve, simply due to the differences in population density.

Note

The blog on the www.brexitenvironment.co.uk website is well worth a visit if you want to learn more about this topic.

Letter from Cyprus

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Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection ….
Laurence Durrell, Bitter Lemons, 1957

When I stepped off flight EZY1973 from Manchester to Paphos on Saturday night I passed a personal milestone. Arriving in Cyprus means that I have now visited all 28 Member States of the European Union. Starting with (West) Germany in 1972 on an exchange visit before the UK was even a member of the European Economic Community, followed shortly after by a family holiday to southern Austria (where my father had been stationed just after the war) with a day trip to Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia), the number started to increase in the late 1990s when I became involved in the work of CEN, the European Standards Agency and, from the mid-2000s onwards, with the intercalibration exercise associated with the Water Framework Directive. A few years ago I made a list and realised just how many I had visited, after which, I have to admit, my choice of conference and holiday destinations was driven by this rather childish whim. Latvia, Malta and Bulgaria, all subjects of posts on this blog, were ticked off, leaving just Cyprus. This year, a family holiday to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday provided the opportunity and, after some shameless lobbying, we had booked a villa near Paphos via AirBnB and were on our way.

How Europe has changed in the 47 years since my first overseas trip. Twelve countries were behind the Iron Curtain, three of the remainder were right-wing dictatorships. Two have merged (East and West Germany) whilst seven have become disentangled from previous relationships (the Baltic States from the USSR, Slovenia and Croatia from the former Yugoslavia and the two former constituents of Czechoslovakia from each other). Cyprus, from where I am writing, was in political chaos in the early 1970s. A former British colony whose territory was argued over by Greece and Turkey, it was soon to be split into two, separated by a buffer zone. I used to browse my Collins World Atlas assuming national borders to be fixed and immutable; the older and wiser me wonders where (and when) the next changes will come from.

The intercalibration exercise, in particular, was an opportunity for an exchange of ideas and I counted co-authors from 23 of the 28 EU states on my publication list. Looking back, these papers show remarkable consistency in some aspects of ecology across Europe whilst, in other respects, I am much more cautious about assuming that knowledge gained in my damp corner of north-west Europe can be applied to warmer and more continental regions. This publication list includes, incidentally, two papers about Cyprus, despite never having either visited before or having a native Cypriot on my list of co-authors. In the first paper, we worked with an Austrian employed by the Ministry of the Environment but, for the second, the samples were collected and analysed by Italians and Germans whilst I helped out with data analysis. Scientific colonialism is not, perhaps, dead?

My favourite? I don’t think I should single one of the 28 out. The food and culture of the warm lands of the Mediterranean basin draw me but I think that the parched summer landscapes would lose their appeal if I was there for too long. I find the grey, damp climate of my own corner of Europe wearisome but the greenness of the Spring and Summer, and the Autumn colours almost compensate. My ideal, in other words, seems like it should be a semi-nomadic existence but that, too, would pale with time. The truth is that, for me, elsewhere, being wanted, is always more wondered at ….

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So that was 2017 …

As is now traditional, I end the year with a word cloud based on the posts I’ve written over the past 12 months.  Comparing it to 2016’s word cloud I see that “see” is still prominent but that the word “diatoms” is now larger than “algae” whilst “desmid” also makes an appearance on the left-hand side.  “Brexit”, despite occupying much of my thoughts, does not merit an appearance.

I am no more optimistic as 2017 closes than I was at the end of 2016.  The Government still has no clear vision for life outside the European Union and the impact on the economy is still uncertain (see note at the end).   There are a few shafts of light: I was pleased to see, for example, that Michael Gove was prepared to consider a new environmental regulator wholly independent of government (“OfEnv”, as some have termed it), responding to genuine concerns raised by Caroline Lucas and others (see “(In)competent authority”).  We will, however, have to wait to see how these fine words are translated into action, bearing in mind Michael Gove’s track record in other ministerial roles.

An “OfEnv” will have its work cut out.   I suspect that one of the unintended consequences of Brexit is going to be a yet greater squeeze on public finances.   This is because many issues whose budgets were, to some extent, ring-fenced in order to meet UK’s obligations to the EU will be less protected in our post-EU economy.   Bearing in mind the huge political significance of health care and education and, in the case of the former, the increasing care needs of an aging population, every other sphere of government spending is going to be under intense scrutiny.   At best, the environment is a mid-table concern in the eyes of politicians, which makes Government funding crucially dependent upon the state of the economy.

That’s ironic in the extreme because one of the most thought-provoking books I read this year was Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth (Random House).   Her core argument is that an economic system focussed on growth is unsustainable for many reasons, one of which is the likely consequences for the environment.   Yet environmental regulation is, at present, dependent upon tax revenues arising from the tired economic system that Kate Raworth decries.   And the hiccups in economic growth from 2010 onwards have put enormous strains on the Environment Agency and other environmental regulators, though management is reluctant to admit this publicly.  I suspect that the BBC’s self-satire “W1A” is very close to the mark for much of the public sector.   Its catchphrase “more of less”* catches the dilemma faced by middle-managers who have bought into an illusion that a leaner, more efficient organisation has arisen from the self-examination that cuts have precipitated.

There are no easy answers.   Long-term, I suspect that neither the EU nor a post-Brexit UK government will deliver a truly green future, for as long as both depend upon politicians needing to meet the material aspirations of their electorates.   Wanting less is a good first step for each of us, as individuals, but such lines of thought are too far from the core business of this blog for me to venture.  I’ll leave that with you as my personal New Year’s resolution and see you all in 2018.

* “To identify what the BBC does best and find more ways of doing less of it better”

Reference

A summary of Kate Raworth’s economic thinking can be found here:

Raworth K. (2017).   A doughnut for the Anthropocene: humanity’s compass in the 21st century. www.theLancet.com/plantary-health 1: e48-e49.

Note

I was pulled up by one reader for my pessimistic view of the economic prospects post-Brexit.  I have, consequently, changed the wording to emphasise the uncertainty in all economic predictions. Three reports from responsible sources that offer perspectives on the post-Brxit economy are: Brexit and the economy one year on, Brexit: is the UK economy growing or slowing?  and: UK economy in 2018: steady growth tempered by Brexit politics.  My primary point – about the vulnerability of the budgets of environmental regulators – remains.