Trends in Long-term Climate Laws

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In this post Anusha Witt (University of Sussex LLM Environmental Law alumna) discusses the emergence of long-term climate governance frameworks from jurisdictions across the globe which are often the locus for net-zero by 2050 commitments. She points to the evolution of net-zero by 2050 as a legal norm, and poses the question: are we reaching a tipping point where net-zero is becoming the accepted standard for climate law?

               

Introduction

For decades the scientific community have sought to highlight that greenhouse gases (GhG) in the atmosphere as a result of human activity is leading to dangerous levels of warming. We have already reached 1°C and alarmingly climate scientists predict that we will reach 1.5°C between 2026 and 2040. To address this, we need to reduce GhG emissions to zero.

The Paris Agreement provides an international framework to respond to this, it calls on Parties to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C and sets a target achieve this by balancing emissions and removal of GhG from the atmosphere by the second half of this century – frequently interpreted to mean net-zero by 2050.

Given the non-binding nature of international climate law, domestic law provides a critical role in facilitating a transition to a low GhG economy. Long-term climate governance frameworks with similar key features have emerged from jurisdictions across the globe and are often the locus for net-zero by 2050 commitments. They play a critical function by putting a legal duty on States to manage the transition to a low GhG economy. Pointing to the evolution of net-zero by 2050 as a legal norm, this article poses the question: are we reaching a tipping point where net-zero is becoming the accepted standard for climate law?

This question is particularly pertinent given how rapidly climate law is developing, the statistics are compelling, the number of climate change laws in major economies has grown from 40 in 1997 to almost 500 at the end of 2013. The likelihood of climate law being enacted increases with the amount of climate laws passed elsewhere. Knowing this trend this article aims to raise some thought-provoking questions on the governance frameworks we are seeing the commitment to net-zero nested in.

 

UK Climate Change Act

The United Kingdom (UK) became the architect of long-term climate governance frameworks, in 2008, when it enacted its Climate Change Act (UK CCA), aimed at crafting steady but ambitious economy wide decarbonisation, whilst allowing for flexibility. Policymakers are not restricted to making reductions in specified sectors, instead they have the flexibility to choose the most cost-effective path to emissions reductions.

Several features within the CCA combine to form a governance framework, including:

  • a legally binding long-term, scientifically informed greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions reduction target (recently updated to net-zero by 2050) and a mid-term 2020 target;
  • a system of ‘carbon budgeting’;
  • an independent expert advisory panel called the Climate Change Committee (CCC);
  • regular reporting and monitoring requirements facilitate compliance.

The carbon budgets are consecutive, and each cover a period of five years with the CCC advising on the limit for GhG emissions for each budget eleven years in advance. This creates a system of policy back casting, whereby policy decisions that are made today (to remain within the carbon budget) are consistent with reaching the long-term target. With each budget more ambitious than the last, the intention of the governance framework is to allow policymakers to chart a steady but progressive course towards the long-term target.

 

Other long-term climate governance frameworks

Since the advent of the UK CCA a proliferation of long-term climate governance frameworks with similar features to the CCA have been enacted in other jurisdictions. Notable examples include: France, Norway, Finland, Ireland, Sweden, Mexico, The Netherlands, Denmark and New Zealand, who have all enacted long-term climate governance legalisation with similar features to the CCA, while Spain, Australia, South Africa and Malaysia (among others) are in the process of developing similar legislation.

 

Comparing national frameworks

Climate Laws in Europe: Good Practices in net-zero management’, provides a comprehensive and up-to-date global picture of this rapidly evolving landscape. As the authors remind us ‘no two climate laws are the same, the frameworks tend to draw on a set of common elements, such as targets, planning, measures, monitoring, public participation and scientific advisory bodies.’

Each of these instruments have a long-term target, however the picture is varied. For the UK, France, Denmark and New Zealand, the target is net-zero by 2050. Both Sweden and Finland are even more ambitious having legislated for net-zero by 2045 and 2035 respectively. Whilst the draft laws in Spain and Australia both have net-zero commitments. Each of these instruments also have their own unique aspects.

Sweden’s Act adds fiscal responsibility to its governance framework through provisions to align climate policies and budgetary decisions and a climate report to be presented with the yearly budget bill.

Australia, with its high susceptibility to climate impacts, requires a climate change risk assessment to assess the current and future effects of climate change on the economy, society, agriculture, environment, and ecology, to identify the most significant risks based on their severity and to assess the need for a coordinated response. The assessment is to be carried out once every five years. The recent catastrophic bush fires serve as a reminder of why this provision is important for the safety of society and the economy. In Australia there was widespread public outrage that leaders in emergency services had repeatedly raised concerns that the bush fire season was bound to be far more severe than usual due to prolonged drought. However, these risk warnings were largely ignored. Assessing the need for a coordinated response to future risks is particularly pertinent given Australia’s federal system of government with different structures for emergency services across States and Territories. Given the transboundary nature of climate change, assessing the need for a coordinated response to climate induced risks seems particularly pertinent and has been a key ask of government in the aftermath of the fires.

The French ‘Energy Transition Law’ stemmed from a public debate around concerns with nuclear energy and has a strong provision for public consultation. The intent is to enable citizens to be key drivers of the transition. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, in France, we have seen citizens making their voices heard loudly and violently through the des gilets jaunes (yellow vest movement). The movement originated from concerns about rising fuel costs due to a fuel tax aimed at emissions reductions. The experience of France illustrates the importance in increasing public awareness of the reasons why transitioning is critical, ensuring the transition is inclusive and that all sectors of society (particular high emitting sectors and those already economically vulnerable) are included in decision making and planning. Ireland also has a social dimension to its Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, which includes the concept of a just transition.

Both public participation and strong mechanisms to ensure a just transition are critical, particularly, given the current COVID-19 crisis. The global economic impact of COVID-19 remains to be seen, but it is clear it will exacerbate existing societal inequalities and it is from this shaky ground that we will need to craft economy wide decarbonisation.

 

International Climate Governance Frameworks

The EU framework

Recently, the European Union published its proposal for a Climate Law with a net-zero by 2050 commitment. The significance of the EU announcing its commitment to net-zero by 2050 cannot be understated, the EU are supporting the momentum behind net-zero and raising the bar of ambition globally before COP 26 (the 26th Conference of the Parties to be attended by countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – which the Paris Agreement complements and falls under). The EU has also adopted a long-term governance framework with similar key features to the aforementioned national climate laws and within which its net-zero commitment lies. The European Commission has extensive reporting and monitoring requirements one of which is to report on progress to the European Parliament, within six months of the global stocktake required under the Paris Agreement. Creating an additional layer of accountability in that poor performance may be seen as a reputational risk for the EU’s leadership image and reinforcing the legitimacy of the Paris Agreement by timing EU domestic decisions to international mechanisms. Interestingly, the EU adds another dimension to the framework by complementing it with the European Green Deal which adds an economic package to accompany the framework and support a just transition.

 

Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement illustrates that borrowing of legal concepts between jurisdictions is not confined to horizontal diffusion between national jurisdictions, but we can also identify vertical diffusion between international law and national law.

The Paris Agreement exhibits similar features to the aforementioned climate governance frameworks:

  • It has a long-term goal (to keep the global temperature increase to well below 2°C and pursue efforts to keep it to 1.5°C) and encourages long-term action by calling on countries to produce long-term low GhG emission strategies by 2020.
  • It places an obligation on Parties to submit Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), every five years in which Parties detail their GhG emissions reductions targets to contribute to meeting the temperature target. Like the UK CCA carbon budgets, Parties are expected to rachet up ambition with each NDC.
  • Lastly, the Paris Agreement is flexible in that it does not prescribe how nation states need to reach the long-term goal they are free to choose the most appropriate path for their context.

Whilst there are many factors that influenced the architecture of the Paris Agreement, there appear to be some clear similarities between long-term governance frameworks and the Agreement. If COP 26 goes ahead this year it will be a critical year for the Paris Agreement. We are five years on from its initial signing, countries’ initial pledges to meeting the temperature goal will be reviewed and countries are expected to raise the ambition of their NDCs.

 

Net-zero by 2050

An increasingly common feature of long-term climate governance frameworks is the provision for net-zero by 2050. Article 4.1 of the Paris Agreement is frequently interpreted as an objective to achieve net-zero emissions globally by 2050. Whilst, its legal root can be found in the Paris Agreement, it is no surprise net-zero  found its way into the agreement – it was conceived and documented by influential people in the world of climate diplomacy well before the negotiations began.

Despite this, the net-zero provision ended up being somewhat hidden in the Paris Agreement. Hidden, because it was one of the components Small Island States (among other proponents) had to compromise on in the negotiations. Instead of appearing explicitly as a net-zero by 2050 commitment it is phrased much more loosely:

‘In order to achieve the long-term temperature goal set out in Article 2, Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, recognizing that peaking will take longer for developing country Parties, and to undertake rapid reductions thereafter in accordance with best available science, so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty.’

The interpretation of this article as a net-zero commitment is explained by Matthias Duwe:

‘Article 4.1 specifies that this goal requires a global emissions trajectory that starts with a “global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible”, followed by “rapid reductions”. This should lead to “a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”, which can be interpreted to specify global carbon neutrality after 2050.’

There is widespread momentum behind net-zero from numerous civil society actors, who are pushing countries to adopt the commitment. It’s not just countries that are adopting net-zero –  states, cities, sports teams, even fossil fuel companies are taking up the challenge, with BP recently announcing that it has committed to reaching net-zero by 2050. Which invites the question: what does net-zero actually mean?

 

What does net-zero by 2050 mean in practice?

Net-zero by 2050 means that all GhG (that a country chooses to include in their target) are reduced by at least 100% of the level they emitted in the year or base period (the average over several years) they choose as their baseline. If the country still emits GhG after 2050 they need to find a way of offsetting those emissions so that they are stored (for example through carbon sinks) and are not released into the atmosphere. As Josh Burke explains, ‘In contrast to a gross-zero target, which would reduce emissions from all sources uniformly to zero, a net-zero emissions target is more realistic because it allows for some residual emissions.’

Different actors have adopted different interpretations of net-zero, for example the UK’s net-zero target currently excludes emissions from the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping. New Zealand includes all greenhouse gases except biogenic methane. Many actors allow for net-zero targets to be met through the purchase of carbon credits from abroad – which is not without controversy.

 

Conclusion: the future of long-term climate laws

It is clear that legal ideas travel between jurisdictions. Finnemore and Sikkink describe a process where norms reach a ‘tipping point’ in which a critical number of key States adopt the norm and it becomes the accepted standard. Is net-zero by 2050 becoming the accepted standard of climate laws?

Finnemore and Sikkink also explain that before a norm becomes the accepted standard some States may adopt it for purely strategic reasons, perhaps in this case to be seen to be acting on climate change. They stress that once the tipping point is reached it becomes the benchmark through which actions are evaluated and justified.

Civil society actors are celebrating long-term climate governance frameworks (with a certain level of ambition) as ‘Paris Compatible’ and therefore in line with international law. Whilst it is clear that long-term climate laws play a critical function by putting a legal duty on States to manage the transition to a low GhG economy, as we have seen it depends on how the State choose to interpret net-zero. Even if all States adopted the net-zero target (and met it) it may not necessarily mean that warming stays below 2 degrees. Indeed, civil society groups are advocating that net-zero will need to be achieved earlier than 2050 to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and are placing increasing pressure on governments to accelerate action.

 

Manifestos of nature – what the parties are saying about biodiversity

Joanna

In this post Dr Joanna Miller Smallwood (ESRC/SENSS Post Doctoral Research Fellow at Sussex Law School) discusses how the Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and Green manifestos for the upcoming general election propose to tackle issues around biodiversity through law and policy.

We are living in a period of mass extinction more catastrophic than any other including the mass extinction period of the dinosaurs. Recent global reports show that 1 in 10 animals and plants will be extinct by 2050, and the loss of species is faster than ever. In the UK, the State of the Nature report 2019 finds that terrestrial and freshwater species have declined by 13% since 1970. This loss is not a natural phenomenon, it is human led. Society is waking up to this fundamental issue, with the help of key media personalities such as David Attenborough and rising social movements such as Extinction Rebellion. All party leaders apart from Boris Johnson took part in a recent televised debate on the approaches of their parties to tackle climate change. This televised debate also touched upon biodiversity related issues, which is promising as biodiversity often plays the underdog to debates on climate change, despite that fact that biodiversity loss is of at least equal importance in terms of planetary health. The loss of biodiversity (alongside climate change) should be at the top of any party political manifesto, these environmental issues really do trump Brexit and other societal concerns, for the simple fact that if our planetary ecosystems fail then none of the other issues will matter anyway as we may in fact cause our own extinction.

The good news is that more than ever, party manifestos for the 2019 general election are addressing key environmental issues. Not only are approaches outlined, but laws and policies are being put forward and funding promised for biodiversity in the manifestos themselves:

  • The Conservatives pledge £640 million for a new nature and climate fund;
  • Labour promise to launch a £250 billion green transformation fund;
  • the Liberal Democrats pledge to increase government expenditure to 5% of the total government expenditure within 5 years;
  • and the Greens undertake to reform the tax system to fund a green revolution.

Finally, environmental issues in the UK are receiving more focused political attention. This blogpost critically reviews the different approaches taken by the parties in relation to tree planting, nature conservation, biodiversity in agriculture, and  it highlights some transformational ideas as well as those which are fundamentally flawed.

Trees

Much has been made of party pledges to plant trees:

  • In their manifesto, the Greens promise planting 700 million trees by 2030 (an average of 70 million a year).
  • The Conservatives promise to raise the number of trees planted to 30 million trees a year by 2024 and the creation of a Great Northumberland forest of 75,000 acres by the end of next parliament.
  • Labour commits to an unquantified ‘ambitious programme’ of tree planting and an NHS forest of 1 million trees in their manifesto and Corbyn recently made an announcement committing Labour to plant two billion by 2040 (100 million a year).
  • The Liberal Democrats promise in their manifesto to raise the number of trees planted to 60 million trees a year by 2024.

If planting trees were the answer to biodiversity loss then it would be relatively clear who has the strongest party manifesto with the ranking from top to bottom being Labour, Greens, Liberal Democrats then Conservatives.

However, the focus on tree planting is problematic for two reasons:

  1. Firstly the amount of trees suggested is highly ambitious and currently much lower targets are left unmet, recent figures show tree planting is 71% short of government targets in the UK.
    This raises doubts whether the party commitments to ever increasing numbers of trees is realistic without systematic change to support these ambitious programmes.
  2. Secondly, despite the huge benefits of tree planting both as carbon sinks and for creating forest ecosystems, planting trees alone will not fully address the biodiversity crisis we are experiencing.
    This is largely because forests are only one of many important types of ecosystem and only focusing on planting trees does not address the main drivers of biodiversity loss. According to the State of the Nature 2019 report, in the UK, the main drivers of biodiversity loss are agricultural management, climate change, hydrological change, urbanisation, pollution, woodland management and invasive non-native species. The causes of biodiversity loss are therefore multiple and complex, and they demand more than tree planting alone and any tree planting that does take place has to be carefully thought out.

Nature

The most obvious solution that springs to mind when considering biodiversity loss is its antithesis, nature conservation. How can nature be conserved, restored and enhanced?

Each party have made broad promises in their manifestos in relation to nature conservation. The Greens’ ‘Green New Deal’ pledges to make space for nature, create policies to restore habitats in urban, suburban and countryside environments and uphold access to diverse nature as a human right. Recognising access to a healthy biodiverse environment as a fundamental human right is a ground-breaking but incredibly sensible rights-based approach to secure more protection to biodiversity. It opens numerous avenues to provide much greater legal protection for biodiversity and nature through the provision of potential legal actions for infringements of this right.

The Greens also aim to create a tryptic of environmental legislation: an Ecocide act (providing for crimes against the natural environment), a Clean Air Act (with ambitious binding emissions targets) and a Sustainable Economy Act (with binding targets for soil quality and biodiversity).

It is envisaged that these legal environmental obligations will be monitored and enforced through a new Environmental Protection Commission. Providing such a means of accountability is vital for the success of the laws introduced. Unsurprisingly the Greens have a strong and comprehensive well thought out environmental programme which addresses biodiversity loss. Key to the Green approach is not only the inclusion of a human right to nature and environmental laws but also a means to enforce compliance. In the UK, conservation legislation is often difficult to enforce due to vague provisions and insufficient funding of regulatory bodies to monitor compliance and to bring non-compliance cases to court. Equally important to the creation of clear environmental laws are well funded independent bodies, that can enforce legal provisions and, in this way, bring real meaning to them.

Labour heralds a ‘green industrial revolution’ not only by creating a million green jobs but by restoring nature. Labour promises a Plan for Nature that sets concrete legally binding targets to drive restoration of species and habitats, this is good news.

Furthermore, they promise to fully fund the Environment Agency which is the existing body that regulates environmental issues from flooding to air quality as well as bringing prosecutions. Labour pledge to increase funding to Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) agencies by a combined annual total of £70m with a significant amount going to the Environment Agency (EA) and over half to Natural England (NE) to expand their role in monitoring and evaluation of the natural environment. These expanded roles for the EA and NE are key to incentivise businesses and other stakeholders to change behaviours so that the new species and habitat restoration targets can be met.

Labour also pledges to create an environmental tribunal to ensure that administrative decisions are consistent with environmental and nature-recovery obligations, this is a real positive step forward and would hold government departments accountable for their impact on nature. Labour provide a robust approach to nature conservation; their approach moves beyond solely laws and policies outlining binding obligations, but addresses means of monitoring and enforcement and therefore accountability to nature within decision making of the sectors that drive biodiversity loss as well as across government.

The Conservatives promote the Draft Environment (Principles and Governance) Bill 2018 (the Environment Bill) which is currently awaiting parliamentary approval depending on the outcome of the election. It has received a mixed response with positive feedback in that it increases ambition in relation to nature recovery, it also adopts a principle based approach where principles such as the precautionary principle will be applied by Ministers of the Crown in making, developing and revising their policies. It is yet not clear exactly how this principle based approach will be applied and work in practice.

The Environment Bill has also been criticised as it does not include definite binding targets or a statutory duty on ministers to create such targets. Without any backbone to the law that places a clear duty on ministers, it could be a token nod to the creation of targets and a principle-based approach and this is very concerning.

The Conservatives propose to set up an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), an independent body to provide scrutiny and advice on environmental law as well as having enforcement functions which is positive and the OEP would promote the new provisions within the Environment Bill. there are concerns the body is too closely linked to DEFRA in terms of funding and accountability which raises some concern about its independence.  Further, if the provisions laid out in the Environment Bill are too vague then enforcement of them will be difficult in practice.

The Liberal Democrats promise a Nature Act to set legally binding near term and long-term targets for improving water, air, soil and biodiversity and guaranteeing an Office of Environmental Protection (OEP). They promise the independence of the OEP and powers and funding to enforce compliance.

They also provide for structural changes within government including establishing a Department for Climate Change and Natural Resources. As well as the appointment of a cabinet-level Chief Secretary for Sustainability in the Treasury – this is a promising suggestion as it begins to promote the ‘mainstreaming’ of environmental issues across government departments which is key to addressing the underlying drivers of biodiversity loss.

The Liberal Democrats’ proposals for nature also provide a dedicated department for natural resources. Whilst a step forward, more important than dealing with ‘nature’ as an isolated issues is the mainstreaming of biodiversity across sectors, which is promoted at the global level by the 1992 Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), the main global treaty on biodiversity. It is a fundamental approach that has been agreed by the CBDs 196 Member Stated and is a key approach that must be adopted by countries to avert the biodiversity crisis.

The Liberal Democrats’ proposal requires every government agency to account for its contribution towards meeting climate targets which is good – even better would be an extension of this to biodiversity targets although this is not in the current remit of the manifesto. Ensuring government departments such as agriculture, trade and industry address biodiversity begins to get to the heart of mainstreaming and accounting for their role in biodiversity loss.

The party manifestos all to a greater or lesser degree account for nature conservation within their manifestos. This is really positive and moves nature further up political agendas. However, nature conservation alone is not enough to tackle the biodiversity crisis. Political parties need to look further than solely nature conservation laws to effectively conserve, restore and enhance biodiversity. Biodiversity also needs to be mainstreamed across society and accounted for in policies and practices in relation to those sectors who drive biodiversity loss, the main one in the UK being agriculture. Legally binding targets will go some way to change behaviour, but it is key that nature conservation is also at the heart of decisions made by all sectors and incorporated into the relevant laws and policies. This is the greatest challenge and where efforts are most needed for change.

Agriculture

A recent report highlighted that the main driver of biodiversity loss in the UK is agricultural management. In the last 50 years the UK’s biodiversity has been destroyed through the intensification of agriculture. A recent DEFRA report on the abundance of birds on farms shows a 56% decline in the number of farmland birds nationally since 1970. Considering that 71% of UK land area is agricultural land this statistic is shocking. The way land is farmed in Britain is key for the restoration and enhancement of biodiversity and farming systems are needed that protect biodiversity rather than destroy it.

In their manifesto the Greens pledge to transform food and farming systems to improve human and environmental health by shifting away from intensive towards smaller-scale farming. The Green plan is for a ten-year transition to agro-ecological farming which includes the transfer of subsidies to farming methods and food systems that create jobs and restore ecosystem health. They promise to encourage the expansion and replanting of most hedgerows lost in the last 50 years through new subsidies. They will create laws to give farmers greater security of tenure to encourage investment in improvements to the land and to reduce pesticide and fungicide use by at least 50% by 2022, phase out all non-agricultural uses of pesticides, and immediately ban the most harmful substances.

They also talk of ‘encouraging’ the ‘rewilding’ of spaces through the planning system. They pledge to establish a Food and Agriculture Research Council to research sustainable and health-promoting farming, the reduction of methane emissions and soil quality. Their comprehensive approach tackles multiple practices which drive biodiversity loss and puts in place a system of farming that moves towards smaller scale farms, reduced pesticide use and planting hedgerows and other rewilding activities. This holistic approach to farming is likely to play a very positive role in not only stopping the ongoing decline in biodiversity driven by agricultural practices but transforming practices to restore and enhance biodiversity. The Greens’ revised subsidy system is planned to fund such changes.

Labour states in its Plan for Nature that it will support farmers to adapt and improve agricultural practices to reduce greenhouse gases and to change use of fertilisers and pesticides to benefit environment quality. They also pledge to consult to set appropriate targets for the reduced use of harmful pesticides and fungicides and adopt the precautionary principle in regulations. They will focus on supporting sustainable farming methods with less reliance on chemicals.

Labour pledge to maintain agricultural and rural structural funds but to repurpose them to support environmental land management and sustainable methods of food production. This talks to the elimination of subsidies and incentives which are harmful to biodiversity and promotion of positive incentives for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. The Labour manifesto has many strengths including setting targets on pesticide use, supporting sustainable farming as well as reforming the subsidy system. The manifesto and Plan for Nature, however, provide little detail as to how this will be achieved and do not extend to rewilding activities on farms.

The Conservatives promote a change to the role of farmers to act as stewards of the natural world and pledge to guarantee the annual budget of farmers in return for farming in a way that protects and enhances the natural environment and safeguarding high standards of animal welfare. Their vision is to lead the world in quality food, agriculture and land management – driven by science-led, evidence-based policy. However, no detail is given on how this vision will be achieved and no laws or policies are put forward to implement these changes. There are no commitments made in relation to reduction in pesticide use, rewilding of farms or providing greater security of tenure to farmers.

The Liberal Democrats in their manifesto propose to reduce basic agricultural subsidies to larger recipients and redeploy the savings to support the public goods that come from effective land management, including restoring nature and protecting the countryside. They also pledge to support farmers to protect and restore the natural environment alongside other critical roles such as in producing food. They do not make any commitments to reduction in the use of pesticides. Their commitment to the redirection of subsides and commitment of money to nature restoration are positive. However, lack of any detail of how this will be achieved is concerning.

The political parties all envisage major changes to the way land is farmed in the UK with a focus on the farmer’s role in safeguarding and enhancing biodiversity, which is hugely positive.

However, concrete plans in the form of laws and policies and governance structures which outline how this ambitious level of change will take place are completely absent in the Conservative manifesto and lacking detail in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. The Greens provide the clearest plan of how biodiversity will be incorporated into a new agricultural system and promise laws to increase security of land tenure as well as pesticide reduction and bans, they aim to promote rewilding using the planning system and change subsidies to encourage the planting of hedgerows. Labour also have a comprehensive approach with the aim to set targets for pesticide use as well as the use subsides to promote environmental land management and sustainable farming.

Beyond nature conservation and agriculture

Nature conservation and the role of agriculture in protecting and enhancing biodiversity discussed in this blogpost are just two areas in which biodiversity needs to be addressed.

Other areas are also key to a comprehensive approach but cannot be covered here. Such areas include the importance of acknowledging the UK’s role in destruction of biodiversity overseas, either within British Overseas Territories or through trade deals. This is a crucial issue as most of the world’s biodiversity is held in the Global South and support and funding from the Global North are needed to protect vital biodiversity reserves.

Further, the role education can play in transforming societal ideologies are key to shaping a future society that respects biodiversity and the essential role it plays, and this will require great change in the way we all live and how society functions.

Things clearly must change, and political parties are beginning to recognise this. This gives some hope but is very much the tip of the iceberg, only when these commitments turn into concrete change through law and policy and strong systems of governance will the decimation we have caused to biodiversity begin to repair. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have produced comprehensive environmental assessments of the political parties manifestos and place the Greens and Labour as parties with the best score for environmental objectives with Liberal Democrats not far behind. They both agree that the Conservatives are very much at the bottom of the list.

Farming Through Brexit: How will leaving the EU affect farmers in and around the South Downs National Park?

photo of Helena Howe

Helena Howe

In this piece Dr Helena Howe (Lecturer in Law at the University of Sussex) gives snapshot findings from a pilot study of how the UK leaving the EU will affect Sussex farmers. In addition to outlining findings, Helena sets out potential policy implications of the research, as well as next steps for the project.

Initial snapshot of findings from pilot study

WHAT IS THE STUDY AND WHO IS INVOLVED?

In a way this project started in 2016, just after the vote to leave had been announced. I stood at the base of the Downs talking to a farmer who has worked hard to enhance the wildlife on the farm and is justly proud of his farmland bird populations. But his vision of the future was not a comfortable one. If food prices fell and financial support for farming reduced significantly, he feared being left with no choice but to squeeze every ounce of productivity out of the farm; thereby squeezing out the wildlife. A well-designed and funded system of support for farmers and land managers could do much to address the flaws in the existing approaches, buffer uncertain markets and foster sustainable food production in the UK. But the risks of getting it wrong were evident.

Withdrawal from the EU and the Common Agricultural Policy is likely to have significant impacts on farmers in the UK. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is currently developing the new regulatory framework for land management, including the proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) to deliver ‘public payment for public goods’, although there is ongoing uncertainty due to the election and Brexit process.

This is the first stage of a study following a dozen farmers in and around the South Downs National Park until 2024. The aim is to contribute an in-depth, regional exploration of farmers’ lived experience of farming as we leave the EU and their responses to the emerging post-Brexit law and policy.

The research began with this pilot study of six farmers in the Eastern South Downs. The farms involved differ in terms of output, approach and tenure. Four of the farms were described as conventional or commercial, one is organic dairy and another has sustainability firmly integrated with food production. There is a mix of owner-occupiers and tenants.

The farmers were interviewed during summer 2019 and asked for their views on:

  1. the impact of Brexit on their farm business, including the changes to existing payment schemes;
  2. whether the potential changes to their markets and the introduction of the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) were likely to alter the way they farm;
  3. features of the proposed ELMS and opportunities for participation in the process of development;
  4. any other issue they felt important.

 

WHAT ARE THE INITIAL FINDINGS?

1. Potential impact on the farm business

All the farmers felt uncertainty about the future. Several were extremely concerned about the financial viability of their farms post-Brexit given the lack of information on market conditions – particularly tariffs, food standards and distribution channels – as well as payment schemes. Most felt that without either higher food prices or substantial public good payments their farm business would be in a precarious financial position. One noted that their farms and other risked ‘going bankrupt wholesale’ (Farmer A). Most already relied on diversification to support the farm financially, although several questioned why the return on food production was so low as to make diversification necessary.

For most, removal of income support through Direct Payments and lack of detail around the new ELMS was a major concern. The majority felt that the loss of Direct Payments could be mitigated if payments for ‘public goods’ under the new ELMS were set at a suitably high level. However, most of the group acknowledged the problems with an area-based payment to landowners, particularly the impacts on land prices and rent. Several noted that the position was more challenging for tenant farmers than owner-occupied farms. Some also expressed concern for the new generation entering the sector.

Farming in this region was seen as a mixed blessing. Those who farmed in the South Downs National Park felt that this was a potential benefit under a system of payments for the provision of public goods. Several farmers were critical of the South Downs National Park Authority management of issues, particularly in relation to recreational access and planning.

2. Changes to farming focus and practice

For all but two of the farmers producing food was the priority. Two of the participants felt that food production was vital but more integrated with wider environmental and social goals. All the farmers were aware of the potential impact of their practices on the environment, both positive and negative. Several felt the degree of damage done by farming to the environment was mispresented.

The majority of participants appeared pragmatic about what they would produce and how they would manage their land and livestock in the future. As one farmer stated: ‘…if I need to change something because that’s where the money is, then that’s what I have to do’ (Farmer B). Decisions on what to produce and how they produced it would be largely determined by what was required by the market or any payment schemes. One spoke of willingness to produce wildlife if that was what became financially sensible. However, another was prepared to become more intensive if this was the only way to maintain the viability of the farm, against his personal preference. Another two felt they could accept a system in which conservation was integrated into food production but would not prioritise public goods over food.

The other two were less pragmatic. They felt that their commitment to broader principles of sustainability meant that they would not be willing to intensify if it meant seriously compromising these principles.

A recurring theme was that the costs of producing food were not adequately recognised or reflected in the prices consumers expect to pay. Several farmers noted that income support through Direct Payments to farmers worked to subsidize cheaper food. The loss of these payments and low returns on food mean farmers are being asked to absorb this cost unfairly; in effect being asked to produce public goods – in the form of cheap food – without this being acknowledged or paid for. They felt this was a major issue for them and for the future of the sector.

3. Initial responses to ELMS

There was enormous frustration at how inflexible and prescriptive the existing agri-environment schemes (AES) have been in setting and enforcing objectives. Many felt that there was insufficient account taken of farmers’ knowledge of their farm and that enforcement was unduly harsh.

All felt that to be successful the new scheme must address these issues. Recommendations included:

  • a move to a more outcome- based system: ‘so what they need to do is to put it in our hands and say … “you deliver this and we want to see results”’ (Farmer E);
  • greater flexibility to enable farmers to try different approaches without being penalised;
  • regional implementation and support for ‘sensible’, knowledgeable, local advisors to help co-design a plan for the farm and to monitor achievement.

For one famer the scheme was simply flawed because it focuses on environmental goods and ignores food production.

Four of the six farmers are part of the same farming cluster. Some found the experience useful for peer learning and social interaction but others seemed unsure as to their real value or purpose. The importance of having a good facilitator was mentioned by several participants. There was ambivalence about an enhanced role for clusters under the new ELMS system amongst this group. Some recognised that this could help to provide public goods at the landscape level but were concerned about how this could work in practice. Several farmers stated that everyone wants to do their own thing on their own farm and not be tied into a scheme with other farms.

All but one farmer felt that they had not been enabled to participate in the development of the new scheme sufficiently. Some felt that that their views had not been sought, save via online consultation or by bodies such as the National Farmers Union (NFU) and the Country Land and Business Association (CLA). But many also felt they had not been – or would not be – listened to. One farmer mentioned that the South Downs National Park Authority has played a role in feeding their views back to DEFRA. Several famers felt that clusters should be used to feed farmers’ views into policymaking.

4. Additional issues

Several participants highlighted the challenges facing younger entrants into farming, such as access to available land – on which to both farm and live – as well as comparatively low levels of pay. Some linked this to the wider issue of how to support thriving rural communities through planning and communications policies. Others mentioned the move towards plant-based diets. Some noted the vital role of cattle and sheep farming in maintaining the Downs landscape but others were trying out products for the growing vegan market.

One farmer emphasised the role of farming in mitigating environmental and social crises through innovative sustainable practices and opportunities to provide experiences that educate and enhance well-being. He wanted farmers, schools and policymakers to embrace and support this vision.

 

WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL POLICY ASPECTS FOR THE STUDY TO EXPLORE?

  • The funding and design of ELMS is potentially key to maintaining both viability of farms in the region and integration of environment and food production. The research will explore ELMS’ capacity to support farms in the South Downs to produce food alongside public goods.
  • If farmers are pragmatic and adaptable there are opportunities and risks for sustainability. Financial and other support could promote a resilient, sustainable farming sector but insufficient funding, excessive bureaucracy or delays could do the reverse. The challenge is to ensure that farmers adapt to changes in ways that promote ecological sustainability rather than being resilient by intensifying their food production. The study will help understand what farmers feel is needed to enable sustainable adaptations in farming practice.
  • Changes in the delivery of advice, monitoring and enforcement are likely to be key to helping farmers adapt to more sustainable practices and make the most of public funding under ELMS. A shift in the balance towards useful advice and away from inspections could significantly improve farmers’ experience of regulation and motivation to engage. The study will explore the role of advice, what makes valuable advisors and how they can enable farmers to make innovative and beneficial use of a more flexible and reward-based scheme.

    The experience of these farmers validates DEFRA’s aim to enhance flexibility and reward outcomes through ELMS. The research will help evaluate how well farmers feel the developing schemes meet these goals.

  • A role for clusters in the administration of ELMS appears challenging. The study will capture members’ experience of participation and suggestions for working at landscape scale.
  • Policymakers could increase efforts around effective participation in the design of ELMS. This study aims to monitor farmers’ perceptions of this and provide another path for feedback.

 

WHAT NEXT?

Discussion is underway with key policymakers and stakeholders to ensure the study is as useful as possible. Additional recruitment of participants in the project is also taking place.

Please contact: h.r.howe@sussex.ac.uk for further information or to get involved.

Access to Justice for all – support the Brighton Legal Walk

Please sponsor the University of Sussex Law School team!

On Monday evening I’ll be participating in the Brighton Legal Walk, to support the provision of free local legal advice.

I’ll be walking with colleagues from the University of Sussex Law School to raise funds for a range of clinical law projects run through the school. These projects involve law students, supervised by faculty, providing free legal assistance on a range of issues to local people who may not otherwise have the means to access this kind of advice. Our schemes include:

  • BHT Pro Bono: run in partnership with the Brighton Housing Trust, who work to support homeless, insecurely housed and vulnerable people and to tackle both the causes and effects of homelessness and poverty.
  • StreetLaw: an innovative project that sees students working with Art Schism, a local collective of artists, to explore legal questions around the ownership of artworks and the legality of grafitti, and the potential of art therapy as a form of rehabilitation for ex-offenders. You can find out more on their blog, Facebook and twitter @SussexStreetLaw
  • The Innocence Project: provides pro bono legal and investigative services to individuals seeking to prove their innocence of crimes for which they have been convicted and working to redress the causes of wrongful convictions.
  • The Environmental Law Project: will involve students carrying out research on cases for the Environmental Law Foundation a registered charity providing pro bono guidance and representation to communities and individuals confronted by environmental issues.
  • The Creative Industries Law Clinic: will offer students a chance to be engaged in clinical work related to the areas of Intellectual Property and Media Law in general, with emphasis on digital rights issues, in partnership with Creative Commons and the Open Rights Group.

These schemes give our students a valuable insight into the ways law works in ordinary people’s lives as well as providing much needed legal advice to the community in the context of increasing cuts to legal aid and the austerity programme in general. Please give whatever you can at our fundraising page to help us maintain and develop this work.

The walk takes place this Monday 15th June and follows a 10km route from the Magistrates Court and out along the seafront to finish at Brighton Housing Trust’s First Base Day Centre.

Renewable energy subsidies and Local Content Requirements: Dream come true or WTO nightmare?

Emily Lydgate
Emily Lydgate

We all (or at least most of us) grasp the importance of switching to renewable energy. The problem is, it’s still expensive. Around the world, countries are using subsidies to incentivize renewable energy use, to shelter these fledgling industries from market competition they cannot yet endure. To make these subsidies more politically attractive, governments often add local content requirements (LCRs). This means that some of the taxpayer payouts go to support local manufacturers of solar panels and wind turbines. Not just the environment, but also local industries, are the winners.

Yet making payments specific to domestic producers is antithetical to the law of the World Trade Organization, to which virtually all of these countries belong. A core principle of the WTO is that domestic and imported products should receive the same treatment.

In a landmark 2013 case brought by Japan and the EU against Canada, the WTO Appellate Body made clear that LCRs are expressly prohibited under WTO national treatment and investment obligations. This is unsurprising. Yet there are some aspects of the case that should provide food for thought.

The first is the dogged persistence of countries to attach LCRs to their subsidies, despite such a clear

REUTERS Suzanne Plunkett
REUTERS
Suzanne Plunkett

signal that they may well end up on the losing end of a WTO dispute. The Canadian disputes have led to several more WTO clashes. The retaliatory nature of these clashes reveals that countries in glass houses are throwing stones at one another. For example, when the EU began an investigation of China’s solar panel subsidies, China responded by initiating a dispute on LCRs in the EU’s renewable energy sector. When the US complained of a LCR in a solar energy programme in India, India responded by pointing out several US programmes that seemed to contravene the same WTO provisions.

This raises the possibility that the WTO’s caseload will be clogged with LCR disputes, quid-pro-quo style, for years. Or perhaps governments will simply go back to looking the other way? In either case, if LCRs are the essential sugar-coating to make the renewable energy pill go down, it could be argued that they are, in a pragmatic sense, an environmental policy. Then this becomes a conflict between trade rules and environmental goals – though it may be impossible to build a formal case for this.

Another important issue raised here is whether the subsidies themselves, in this case Feed-in-Tariffs (FITs), are WTO-illegal. FITs are the most popular form of renewable energy subsidy, adopted by more than 71 countries. Whether WTO law will accommodate them is thus hugely significant. The Appellate Body ducked the question, concluding that it did not have enough information complete the analysis. Thus the dispute did not provide a clear precedent.

What it did do is reveal the inadequacy of WTO subsidy laws to deal with the situation. There is no ‘carve out’ for subsidies that are based upon public policy (eg environmental) goals. Though its ruling was inconclusive, the Appellate Body introduced some significant and innovative legal reasoning which shielded the renewable energy market from comparisons with open conditions of competition. This may open the door for renewable energy support to be justified on an economic rather than a policy basis. However, the approach was widely-criticized for its ‘ends justifies the means’ approach and the complex, ambiguous precedent it created. In other words, the Appellate Body got creative. Instead of stretching the interpretation of how a market is defined in general to accommodate this specific result, it would have been more straightforward to conclude that the subsidy was justified in principle because of its policy rationale. The fact that the legal rules are not fit for purpose (if you’ll excuse the pun) is a cause for concern.

WTO Member States will likely continue to use incentive schemes to encourage renewable energy production, with controversial results. As WTO disputes evolve, this will be an interesting space to watch.

Emily Lydgate is Lecturer in Environmental Law at the University of Sussex