Environment: EU green myths

The truth about the EU and the environment

As the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU draws closer, the ‘in’ campaign is ratcheting up project fear. But while apocalyptic warnings from Cameron and friends hit the headlines, ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ (the official remain campaign) is also attempting to win votes by convincing us of the supposedly progressive, social role of the EU.

To assist in this effort, the campaign has successfully recruited a number of right-wing trade union leaders and ex-leaders, seeking to win legitimacy for the argument that working class people and big business have a shared interest in a vote to remain.

In a similar vain, one of the campaign’s recent offerings is a booklet claiming to outline ten green reasons for staying in the EU. The pamphlet’s introduction is signed by the representatives of four political parties. These include the sole Green MP Caroline Lucas, ex-Labour leader Ed Miliband, the former Lib Dem Energy and Climate minister Ed Davey and Tory Environment Secretary Liz Truss.

This list alone should be cause for readers to treat the pamphlet’s contents with serious scepticism. As the Green MEP Kieth Taylor recently put it, the Tories are “in bed with the Fracking industry”. You’d think he must have been surprised, therefore, to find his own party’s MP co-authoring a pamphlet with the Tory environment secretary. It’s perhaps even more galling when you consider that Liz Truss, formerly a top manager at Shell, was recently exposed for saying she would make it her “top priority” to ensure that no environmental protections, including those designed to preserve national parks, would be allowed to stand in the way of shale gas exploration and fracking in Britain.

When you take this into consideration, along with the rest of the government’s dreadful record on environmental issues, it’s clear there’s a large dose of hypocrisy when, as well as outlining their ‘green reasons’ for remaining in the EU, the authors dedicate half the pamphlet’s content to “10 reasons you can’t trust leave campaigners on the environment”.

Here, the ‘leave campaigners’ they attack are Tory brexiters and UKIP politicians. In short, they are members of the same capitalist club as the Tory environment secretary and her friends at Shell.

But what about socialists and trade unionists supporting a vote to leave? Why is Caroline Lucas going along with smearing the likes of the RMT – a democratic union representing 80,000 public transport workers – with the climate change denier label? Socialists and trade unionists campaigning to leave the EU have nothing in common with the likes of UKIP’s Douglas Carswell or the former Tory environment secretary – Owen Patterson.

Indeed, for Socialists, the key question that needs to be asked in this referendum is in whose interests does the EU act? Really this means in the interests of which class?

A fundamental mistake made by the right wing union leaders currently lining up on the ‘remain’ side is the idea that there can be a unity of interest between working class people, multinational companies and their political representatives in the pro-capitalist parties. This is also the source of the error made by Caroline Lucas in co-authoring a pamphlet with Truss.

The EU, at its most basic level, is a coming together of pro-capitalist governments across Europe in order to help make business run more smoothly. Under capitalism, protection of people and environment is always subservient to the drive for profit. While some sections of capitalist class may favour particular regulations to curb specific excesses, they are unable to see beyond the drive for short term profit or their narrow national interests. This is especially fatal when seeking to tackle a serious but long term threat like climate change.

The idea that the EU is able to overcome these pressures is nonsense. In fact there are many ways in which the institution exacerbates the destruction of the environment. Take, for example, one of the ‘green reasons’ cited in this pamphlet and highlighted by the authors in the introduction: The EU emissions trading scheme.

The idea behind emissions trading is that a certain number of carbon ‘permits’ are issued, which companies are able to buy and sell from one another. Theoretically this is supposed to mean that businesses are incentivised to reduce their carbon output, allowing them to sell on extra permits and helping to reduce overall emissions in line with an agreed target.

In practice this scheme has been (at best) ineffectual – the EU’s own estimate is that overall emissions from its member states rose by 2.8% during 2010-2012, for example. But, at worst, the scheme has actually boosted the profitability of some of the gravest offenders in terms of pollution. Indeed, in phase 1 of the scheme (2004-2007) 95% of ‘permits’ were handed to the biggest industrial polluters for free. This was only reduced to 90% (still the vast majority) in phase 2 (2008-2012).

The allocation of permits via a method known as ‘grandfathering’ means the credits are distributed on the basis of a company’s historic emissions. This inevitably means the biggest polluters are given the most free permits. The overall cap is generally higher than overall emissions anyway, meaning that big polluters are simply being handed a new way to make money. No wonder then, that when the scheme was first introduced it was described by one commentator as “the biggest, most regressive redistribution of property rights in history”.

The new market in carbon permits also gives rise to speculation – with companies selling permits while prices are high and then buying them back as the costs drop. When the monopolies that control the energy sector need to buy more permits they pass costs on to consumers via price rises. Meanwhile when they find they have more than they need, or when small or temporary reductions in emissions are achieved, they sell excess permits and boost profits further.

Considering the prominence given to the trading scheme in this pamphlet, it’s perhaps surprising that the Green Party’s own policy on the issue actually points some of these flaws out. Their website states: “The current EU emissions trading scheme has two primary flaws; it is not based on equal rights to the atmosphere, nor on global greenhouse-gas stabilisation targets. As a result the highest polluters are rewarded with the greatest allocation of emission permits, full carbon life-cycle emissions are not assessed and no attempt is made to correlate with global stabilisation targets.”

In fact, the fundamental problem with this scheme, like many of the others cited in the pamphlet, is that it is designed with the interests of big business at its heart. Ultimately, the EU is not prepared to introduce measures which will dent the profits of the multinationals. Indeed, the commission is currently negotiating the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US. This would allow companies to bring claims against national governments for introducing laws or regulations (including those that intended to protect the environment) which dent their profitability. That’s before you get on to the planned deregulation of fracking and genetically modified crops.

And even without TTIP, a left government seeking to nationalise the railways, energy companies and utilities – a vital first step in genuinely tackling climate change and lowering emissions would be forced to do so in defiance of EU law.

The real defenders of the earth are not Brussels bureaucrats. It is the workers’ movement that has fought hardest throughout its history to protect and improve our environment. Defending the planet requires workers being organised, both in Britain and internationally, to fight climate change and challenge and the capitalist system that’s responsible for it. But what it most certainly doesn’t require is a ‘vote of confidence’ in the EU bosses’ club!

A vote to leave the EU could deal a crushing blow to the Tory government, force Cameron from office and even result in a new general election. This potential to see the back of the Tories is in itself an excellent ‘green reason’ for voting out.

That’s why the Socialist Party is campaigning alongside workers and trade unions on an independent, socialist and internationalist basis, for a vote to leave the bosses’ EU. Because effectively fighting climate change really means fighting to change society.

To put an end to environmental destruction it is necessary to nationalise the big monopolies which dominate our economy and pollute our globe so that they can be run under democratic workers’ control and management. Only then would it be possible to democratically plan the economy on a socialist basis. It is only when we are united with workers to fight for a socialist Europe, within a socialist world, can we hope to put an end to climate change and to restore the environment in the interests of future generations.

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June 2016