Terms and conditions apply …

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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.

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The heart of the matter …

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I have made no secret of my strong belief that the UK would be foolish to leave the European Union (see “What has the EU ever done for us?“).  Until now, I have argued the case for our environment being better protected by EU regulations and enforcement procedures.  However, that is only part of the reason that I will be voting to stay in the EU on June 23.  The emotional heart of my argument is encapsulated in the two photographs above.

They both show the road, Suffolk Street, in Forest Gate, East London, where my mother and her family lived during the Second World War.  The left hand picture shows my mother standing outside the house where she was brought up.  Like almost every house in the street it is a 19th century terraced house, with two rooms upstairs and three downstairs.   Right up to the time my grandmother died in 1989 it had an outside toilet and no separate bathroom.   The right hand picture shows three houses built in the 1960s that stand about 100 metres further along the road from my mother’s house.   Those houses stand on the site where a German V1 flying bomb landed in 1944.  My grandmother, mother and uncle emerged from the air-raid shelter at the end of their small garden to find their windows blown in and a gaping hole between two of the downstairs rooms.   I still remember seeing the crack in the wall when I visited as a child.   My mother’s favourite doll also lost one of its arms during the attack.

Seventy years on, I spend a proportion of my working life working with the European Union, and have a reasonable idea of the realities of getting representatives of 28 different countries to agree on a common path.  It is not always easy, and sometimes there are frustrations and disagreements.   The lack of uniformity across Europe is part of what makes travelling around the continent and working with people from other countries a generally rewarding experience.   We share many values, but the expression of those values is shaped by different cultures and histories.   Finding a way through the problems and disagreements is not always easy, but a brief pause to reflect on how far we have all travelled since Britain and Germany dropped bombs on one another is enough to put these disagreements into perspective.

There is much with which I do not agree within the European Union; the time is not right for greater movement towards a single federal state, and the Euro, for all the practical conveniences, was rushed ahead without thinking through all the implications.   However, major constitutional changes require agreement from all members, so the UK cannot be forced down paths with which it disagrees profoundly.  But all of these debates are fringe affairs compared to the recognition of shared values, achieved through the increased mobility of citizens around the EU, whether on holiday, to work or to study.  Perhaps the UK does not get the full benefit of the free movement of labour because our language skills are not as developed as in many other countries?  But that is a matter that we have to resolve ourselves and is hardly the fault of the EU.   That said, the working language of scientists within the EU is English and I am writing this on the way back from a business trip to Romania, so there is hope, even for the linguistically challenged …

Being in Romania also served as a reminder of the role that the EU played in encouraging democracy and economic development in the former communist states.   Liam Fox, the former Conservative Defence Secretary – and prominent “out” campaigner was scornful of the suggestion that the EU contributes to peace. That, he claimed, was due to NATO, not the EU.   That betrays a very limited understanding of “peace” as no more than “not war”.   “Peace” is a far bigger concept than Liam Fox’s definition, embracing all the interactions we have that make war inconceivable.   NATO, at best, contributes to a sense of security in situations where true peace has already failed.  But that’s a topic for another day.

A major limitation of the “out” campaigners is their appeal to a sense of nationalism that seems thoroughly behind the times in our modern interconnected world.  To me, being “European” is just one more layer to my identity.  It does not conflict with my nationality.  I was reminded of this as I listened to Sunderland fans taunting Newcastle supporters as their victory over Everton consigned Newcastle to relegation.  But I know that, as the European championships get under way, Sunderland and Newcastle fans will be standing side by side supporting England.  So the idea of nested identities is hardly new.  Europe is just one more layer to our identity.  Voting to stay in on June 23rd is a complete no-brainer…

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The Palace of the Parliament (“Casa Poporului”) in Central Bucharest, built on Nicolae Ceauşescu’s orders: a reminder of Romania’s Communist past.

What has the EU ever done for us?

This is the text of an article published in the Quaker magazine The Friend on 12 May as part of my contribution to the debate on the UK’s membership of the European Union:

I should declare my interest in the outcome of the EU referendum: my work involves helping clients (government agencies, mostly) translate European environmental legislation into practice.  I once tried to explain this to Enoch Powell.  His put his face close to mine and, eyes blazing, spat contemptuously “what business of theirs is it if we poison our rivers?”

It was a fair question.  If I was a Dutchman, I would have pointed out that all of our major rivers rose elsewhere and received effluents from sewage works and industries in several other EU States before crossing into their territory.   Were I Swedish, I could point to the role of EU legislation in reducing emissions from power stations elsewhere in the European Union, leading to less air pollution blowing over their territory.  But what about the UK?   We have a short land border with the Republic of Ireland, mostly running through rural areas.  Other than that, the patterns of North Sea currents mean that our coastline is less affected by pollution from the River Rhine than by our own rivers, and the prevailing winds from the Atlantic mean that it is our pollution that blows to continental Europe and Scandinavia, not the other way around.  There is, relatively speaking, less direct benefit to the UK’s environment than is the case for many other countries.

Environmental management can be summarised as devising a path from where we are to where we would like to be.  That destination might be expressed in the language of science but it is tangled up with a slew of social and cultural factors.   Ambition, in many cases, is tempered by what is perceived to be the Art of the Possible, framed by a collective vision.   An environmental regulator responsible for a densely-populated region with a long history of urban and industrial development will, rightly, gain a sense of achievement from any significant movement towards a cleaner environment.  And the Environment Agency in England has made considerable progress over recent years.  But “better than before” is not the same as “good enough” and where European Union legislation goes beyond what the UK alone can achieve it is by establishing this collective vision.

But regulation of the environment the UK as a whole suffers from a more systemic problem: the lack of clear policy separation between agriculture and the environment.   It is, of course, foolish to pretend that environmental policy does not have implications on agriculture, or vice versa.  The problem is that the ambition for the environment can never be entirely separated from issues of farm income or food security.  What may be presented as joined-up thinking on rural affairs may also end up as a fudge.  Far better to lay out the ambition and then make cogent arguments for why that ambition may need to be balanced by pragmatism.

That, to me, is the biggest advantage of the EU to the UK: it brings a clear ambition for sustainable development, based on a continent wide view, independent of views of other sectors.   My point is not that these other viewpoints are not important, or that there may be situations where they have to take priority.   It is that we must not let these sectors influence the setting or implementation of environmental targets.   The accommodations that are necessary to make high principle rub up against reality can be dealt with by derogations within the legislation (as is the case in the Water Framework Directive, for example) rather than by fudges during the process of policy development.

But this debate is less about the minutiae of legislation, whether environmental, trade or any other sector, than it is about how the UK sees itself in relation to the rest of Europe.  The logic of pulling back from international co-operation at a time when national boundaries seem to be increasingly irrelevant, defeats me.  The environment epitomises this: a crude analysis suggests that the UK gains fewer tangible benefits than some other countries, yet this misses the point.  The true benefit of Europe to the UK’s environment is not measured by the absence of negative effects, so much as by the share that we hold in a collective vision that is greater than the sum of its parts.

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An abandoned lead mine draining into the River Nent in Cumbria: one of many challenges facing the UK environment where we benefit from engagement with the European Union.

Evolve or die?

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Last June, I wrote a post titled “So what?”, which included a cartoon summarising all that I thought was wrong with the world of diatom specialists within which I move.   We have become, as a group, very good at naming and counting diatoms, but not very good at understanding how these fit into ecosystems.   Along with two colleagues, I included this cartoon in a paper that we wrote based on talks at the meeting that I wrote about in that post. One reviewer took umbrage at this, suggesting that “… it is really making a very bad favour to all the people working with diatoms, and to the efforts expended during many years to implement techniques related to them …” (sic).   Unfortunately, I feel that there is so much complacency amongst diatom specialists at present that we are hardly doing them a favour by writing platitudes. Inhabitants of the curious sub-discipline of diatom science seem to have drifted far from the frontline of functional ecology and some shock tactics are necessary in order to drag them back towards reality. We argued our case for including the cartoon and the editor agreed with us.

The roots of the problem are sociological and cultural rather than scientific: diatoms became established as the first choice algae for ecological assessment for a number of reasons, one of which was the absence of competition from advocates of other groups of organisms. Diatom methods behaved like an invasive species, spreading rapidly across Europe and beyond, exploiting the new “niche” created by the Water Framework Directive’s requirement that “phytobenthos” (i.e. attached algae) should be considered when Member States were evaluating the condition of their fresh waters.

What happened next was, I suspect, the natural consequence of academic specialisation. We all recognised that the first generation of methods were far from perfect but, as circumstances had selected diatom specialists (with their inclinations towards taxonomy) over those with interests in other algal groups and, more significantly, ecological processes, these people then dictated the next stages of development.   Over the past 15 years, I have watched the lists of species that analysts are expected to recognise gradually grow in length in many parts of Europe. Adherents of this approach claim greater sensitivity as a result, but there is little hard evidence to support this.   Rather, I think we are watching the natural inclination of specialists towards greater specialisation.

The line that we took in our new paper is that the “ecological status” that we are all trying to measure is a much broader concept than can be encapsulated by the composition of a single group of algae.   Importantly, it needs to consider not just what species are present but also how much biomass these create.   We recognise that measuring biomass is not an easy task but, paradoxically, diatom specialists in yet another recent paper point out that differentiating some groups of diatoms is difficult yet seem to think that this can be resolvable by greater diligence on the part of analysts, whilst every other facet of ecological status can be quietly ignored.

My inclination is to aim for much greater breadth of information in our assessments, accepting, at the same time, that this may entail less detail within the individual nuggets of information (see “The democratisation of stream ecology?”). There is, I recognise, a fine line between “streamlining” a method and “cutting corners” but it may be a price worth paying in pursuit of a wider goal. I explored this in a recent paper on redundancy in lake assessments (see “Unmasking the faceless Eurocrats …”), invoking the economic principle of “decreasing marginal utility”. Broadly speaking, the information content of any individual type of data decreases by a power law, such that the first 20% of effort (roughly) yields 80% of the answer.   The unique information content associated with the extra effort gradually tails off.   The question that no-one has satisfactorily answered is whether the “splitting” that now seems axiomatic amongst diatomists adequately balances the huge amount of information (on other algae, on biomass) that is completely ignored.

It seems straightforward if put in purely scientific terms, but the situation is complicated, again, by non-scientific, socio-cultural aspects. Specialist biologists, like all craftsmen/craftswomen, take pride in doing the best possible job. It is possible, too, that the extra data that they extract from a detailed analysis may turn out to be useful in the future, so why ignore it?   On the other hand, the creation of a cadre of specialist “diatomists” means that they see the “best possible job” exclusively in terms of their data and not in terms of the overall management of a river or lake. And finally, the widespread adoption of diatoms for assessment has created a niche for specialist contractors who work for environmental agencies and others performing the highly detailed analyses that are currently required. Any attempt to “streamline” the process threatens their livelihood.   So what starts as an impartial scientific debate is anything but, as the “Guild” of diatom analysts marshals its arguments.

Our paper forms the introduction to a series of papers arising from the Trento meeting. It may seem strange to open the proceedings with a fairly negative evaluation of the state of affairs, but I offer no apologies.   Pushing my ecosystem analogies just a little further, “specialist” organisms are vulnerable to changes in their habitat in a way that “generalists” are not.   The landscape of environmental regulation is not static and biologists, no less than the organisms they study, need to evolve in order to survive.

Reference

Kahlert, M., Ács, E., Almeida, S.F.P., Blanco, S., Dressler, M., Ector, L., Karjalainen, S.M., Liess, A., Mertens, A., van der Wal, J., Vilbaste, S. & Werner, P. (2016). Quality assurance of diatom counts in Europe: towards harmonized datasets. Hydrobiologia (in press) DOI: 10.1007/s10750-016-2651-8

Kelly, M.G., Schneider, S.C. & King. L. (2015).   Customs, habits and traditions: the role of non-scientific factors in the development of ecological assessment methods.   WIRES Water 2: 159-165.

Poikane, S., Kelly, M.G. & Cantonati, M. (2016). Benthic algal assessment of ecological status in European lakes and rivers: challenges and opportunities.   Science of the Total Environment (in press). (doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.02.027) (The picture at the head of this post is the “Graphical Abstract” from that paper which is “open access”, thanks to the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre)

What has the European Union ever done for us?

There is now less than six months to go before the next general election in the UK and I am going to write a few posts over the coming months evaluating the prospects for the environment that emerge from the political debate.   The rise of UKIP means that this is going to be an election like no other that we have experienced in the UK and, inevitably, Europe is going to be high on the agenda. Add in the inevitable concerns about the economy and the health service and the environment will probably slip down the agenda to that part of each party’s manifesto where rhetoric rules over reality.

Except that the focus on Europe and the economy means that the outcome of this election will have enormous implications for the UK’s environment.   First, most of our environmental legislation derives, ultimately, from the European Union (EU) and, second, implementing environmental legislation requires a strong, well-funded regulator.   We go into the next election campaign aware that leaving the EU is a genuine possibility and, consequently, be aware of the implications.   At this stage, of course, we don’t know what “leaving the EU” really means.   The UK could, in theory, leave the EU but remain part of the European Economic Area, members of which voluntarily adopt EU environmental legislation.   Another possibility is that we leave the EU and EEA but retain the framework of environmental law that we have inherited from the EU (because this has been transposed into UK legislation).

My view is that the environment is one of the principal beneficiaries of UK’s membership of the EU. This is partly because this is an area of policy which benefits from a joined-up approach: the state of the North Sea, for example, depends on the individual environmental policies of UK and six other countries which share its coastline, plus Switzerland (in the EEA but not the EU) and Luxembourg, both wholly or partly in the Rhine catchment.   It is also influenced by the Baltic Sea, which is bordered by a further seven countries, all but Russia EU members. The UK’s use of the North Sea requires a level of agreement amongst these countries that the EU facilitates.   This is not the only example: air pollution does not respect national boundaries either, and there are river catchments in Ireland which straddle the north-south border and so benefit from a shared approach to management.

I also believe that the EU provides a better forum for discussing and developing environmental legislation. Domestic politicians have been, rightly, focussed on the economy and health service. I do not believe that the level of protection afforded by the Water Framework Directive, for example, could have been produced by Westminster politicians working in isolation because of the amount of parliamentary time it would have required.   Watching the way that non-scientists such as Nigel Lawson have hijacked and distorted the debate on global warming in the UK also makes me sceptical about whether Westminster, alone, has the ability or integrity to evaluate new environmental legislation objectively.

I use the term “Westminster” very loosely here as the environment is one power that has been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.   In practice, all four administrations are implementing the same set of EU Directives which ensures a joined-up approach.  I know, from meetings I have attended, that there is a centrifugal tendency amongst the administrations, reflecting a legitimate desire to adapt environmental policy to the different conditions of each of the UK’s four constituents. The framework of EU policy, however, provides a centripetal counterweight to these tendencies.

My worry is that our country is ill-served by its politicians with respect to environmental policy. We have a largely London-based political class, a large proportion of whom have little scientific training and many of whom have reduced “Europe” to a political football.   Differences in how Scotland and England manage the environment may appear abstract to those based in London (or Edinburgh) or subservient to a wider ideal. However, these issues take on a much larger significance to anyone who lives in the catchment of the River Tweed, for example.   What happens on the north side of the river has implications for what might happen further downstream on the south side.   The same applies to the River Foyle and many other examples around the UK.

We will, I am sure, hear much rhetoric about “global warming” in the run up to the next election. Remember that the biggest danger to the environment may be the hot air produced by the politicians themselves.