Fishing for subsidies

Fish the world over are being removed from the oceans at an alarming and unsustainable rate. One estimate from a recent WWF report suggests that the populations of fish species which are caught by humans for food have halved in recent decades, with selected species witnessing even more pronounced declines in numbers. Approximately a quarter of all elasmobranchs – that is, sharks, rays and skates – for instance, verge upon extinction, primarily due to unsustainable levels of fishing. Strong and increasing world demand for fish and seafood derivatives look set to place an additional pressure on an already burdened resource.

The consequences of such relentless and unrestrained extraction can be catastrophic for ecosystems. The removal of apex predators from certain waters, for instance sharks and tuna, may trigger a mushrooming of species lower down the food chain, which can go unchecked in the absence of a natural control mechanism. Conversely, the overexploitation of herbivorous fish which arrest algal succession can spell disaster for marine environments, such as corals and coastlines, because the algae toxify waters and impinge upon the ability of reefs to take hold and flourish. Tackling overfishing, therefore, will be vital to preserve not only some of the most precious fish species, but also the wider environment at large.

Solutions to overfishing

An earlier blog post explored the possible introduction of ‘individual transferable quota’ (ITQ) systems into areas which are not currently subject to them, as a solution to the problem of overfishing. Quotas like these permit fishers to catch an allotted quantity of a species of fish over a certain period of time. Indeed, ITQs have proven to be at worst better than unregulated arrangements, and at best a genuine method of ensuring sustainable fishing. Yet, given the complex and politicised nature of ITQs, they have often proved challenging to implement in practice.

Even so, other, more moderate, solutions to the problem of unsustainable fishing are available. One particular impediment of efforts to move towards a more sustainable system of fishing, for instance, is the copious subsidies which enable an uneconomically large fishing fleet to exist. Whilst challenging to definitively calculate, aggregated fishing subsidies across the globe total an estimated $35 billion.  

First of all, it must be said that not all subsidies associated with the fishing industry are necessarily deleterious for sustainability. There are examples of desirable behaviour being encouraged through subsidies, such as incentivising fishers to trade in old, environmentally harmful fishing gear – like drift nets – for cash payments, which they can put towards newer, safer equipment. On some analyses, approximately $15 billion of subsidies worldwide are directed into broadly socially beneficial programmes – including funding for the rehabilitation of ecosystems, fisheries management schemes, and environmentally-oriented research and development.

The harmful effect of subsidies

Sadly, however, the majority of state-administered aid to fishers is not so ecologically ameliorating. The conservation group Oceana have calculated that as little as 1% of all subsidies granted by EU member states to their native fishing industries had beneficial consequences for the environment. Taking the UK in isolation, over €17.5 million of subsidy payments were classed as detrimental, over €160 million as ‘ambiguous’, and none at all were regarded as environmentally beneficial. 

Particularly perverse are so-called ‘capacity enhancing’ subsidies, which pay for the operational costs associated with fishing, such as fuel expenditure or port construction, thereby permitting a greater number of vessels to take to the seas than would be the case otherwise. Indeed, amongst developed and developing nations, an estimated 22% of all fishing subsidies are directed towards reducing the cost of fuel. In addition, research has found that 90% of capacity enhancing subsidies are granted to large-scale, industrialised fishers, as opposed to artisanal, subsistence fishers, which have less of an impact upon marine environments.   

Policies such as capacity enhancing subsidies are increasingly recognised as damaging to our seas, and hinder efforts to achieve sustainability in fish stocks. But not all subsidies are necessarily bad. Those which are tailored to encourage environmentally friendly practices will assist fishers to adapt how they operate for the better. The industry will also require some level of subsidy to pay for monitoring and data collection, each of which help to ensure the rebuilding of fish stocks and their maintenance thereafter.

Much in the same way as has been touted for land agriculture, when the UK withdraws from the EU, the chance arises for greater consideration to be given to how fishing subsidies are allocated. It is doubtless that reducing payments which are capacity enhancing will force some fishers out of the market. But if the government chose to do this, one option could be to reinvest the savings from curtailing capacity enhancing subsidies into measures which help our marine ecosystems to thrive. Further, for those fishers efficient enough to remain, they will do so within an environment which they can be sure will be economically productive for years and decades to come.

Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue

How the illegal wildlife trade contributes to security concerns

Poaching and the illegal wildlife trade are, by definition, security threats to some of the Earth’s most endangered animals and least-common plants. The WWF estimate that as many as 20,000 elephants are killed each year, and that wild tiger populations have been decimated to just 5% of what their total strength was at the beginning of the 20th Century. Forests are being plundered at extraordinarily fast rates for their valuable and rare woods, which is in turn destroying entire ecosystems. Yet, as much as such illicit activities are threatening to the world’s natural environment, they are increasingly being recognised by security experts and politicians alike as safety concerns for humans, too.

Believed to be worth up to $23 billion per annum, the illegal wildlife trade – which includes dealing in ivory and animal skins, as well as rare plants and woods – is a multifaceted problem which involves nations both rich and poor. Naturally, therefore, criminal gangs stand to make a good deal of money by participating in what is one of the world’s most valuable black markets, along with drugs, human trafficking, and counterfeiting.

A multi-consequential issue…

The trade in illegal wildlife can spawn insecurity in a number of different ways. Most obviously, organised criminals and terrorist cells can directly partake in the trade, and plough the immense profits they make into wreaking havoc amidst human civilian populations. A report published by the Elephant Action League, for instance, claims that ivory trafficking in East Africa alone could be supplying up to 40% of the funds necessary for maintaining the international terrorist group al-Shabaab’s fighters. Criminals and terrorists are believed to view poaching as an attractive method of raising money because wildlife crime offers high rewards with lower risks, relative to other felonies.

Yet, it is not only intrastate actors who have exploited wildlife to bankroll their destabilising activities. A report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare highlights how rogue states – a most obvious source of insecurity for civilians – have historically financed themselves in part through the illegal wildlife trade, often turning their military might on megafauna like elephants and rhinos in order to harvest their valuable tusks and horns.

Another, more nuanced, perspective on how the illegal wildlife trade threatens human populations can be seen in the way that when natural capital is unsustainably extracted from an ecosystem, that ecosystem duly degrades. This creates insecurity on two fronts. Intrinsically, as the environment deteriorates, it becomes less able to sustain its inhabitants – jeopardising their very survival. But instrumentally, too, this in turn may drive the forced migration of so-called environmental refugees, potentially creating “inter-human conflicts” when the aforementioned refugees settle amongst other civilians, and resources become scarce or more contested.

Similarly, another thought-provoking yet all too often underappreciated source of insecurity posed by the illegal wildlife trade is the way in which it contributes to the prevalence of zoonotic diseases. The importation of live animals, or unsanitary bushmeat, serves as a serious hazard to countries one may not initially associate with contributing to poaching. Indeed, it is believed that the illegal wildlife trade has played a role in the proliferation of certain high-profile diseases, such as Ebola and SARS.

… requiring multi-dimensional solution

One can see from the above that efforts to quell the illegal wildlife trade need not exclusively be bound up in the conservation paradigm. Poaching can be inextricably linked to human security in terms of how it can fund terrorism and support rogue states, as well as creating environmental refugees and spreading diseases. Accordingly, some have argued that the trade in illegal wildlife ought to be conceptualised as a focus not only for conservation groups, but also Government departments such as the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Department of Health.

Solving the problem of poaching will need to be a concerted and coordinated endeavour, best done through joined up Government and international collaboration where practicable. It will depend also on limiting both the supply and demand of illegal wildlife produce. On the former, this may be achieved through measures such as increasing funding for park rangers, and equipping customs officials with the latest technology to scan for would-be smuggled exports of illegal wildlife produce. Closer to home, wildlife groups have called on the Government to explore extending the trade in ivory prohibition to include pre-1947 ivory, as it is claimed that the loophole acts as a cover for the trading of that which was harvested post-1947 (i.e. possibly ‘fresh’ ivory), which can be difficult to age accurately.

On the latter point – lowering demand – it may appear to be an insurmountable challenge, given just how intimately products such as ivory or shark fins are linked to certain cultures. Yet, it would be premature to be overly pessimistic. Japan, for example, was once one of the world’s biggest importers of rhino ivory, but following stringent regulation and changing social attitudes, it now only imports a fraction of the total ivory it once did. In China, too, one advertisement campaign alone was found to lower respondents’ proclivity to purchase ivory from 54% to 26%.

When up against powerful and ruthless criminal organisations, conservationists may feel they are fighting a losing battle. Recently, however, there has been a trickle of good news – from wild tiger numbers increasing for the first time in over a century, to Nepal successfully ensuring that no rhino poaching took place for two whole years. But there is still much more that can be done. Raising the awareness amongst Governments of the ways in which poaching can threaten not only the world’s most endangered plants and animals, but also their citizens, could be a prudential place to begin. 

Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at Bright Blue

Net losses: solving fishing’s sustainability crisis

With respect to the UK’s fisheries, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP spared no time at all in flexing his muscles as the new Environment Secretary. Just weeks into his brief, Britain’s withdrawal from the London Fisheries Convention had been triggered, in a move which Gove argued would lead to a “more competitive, profitable and sustainable industry”. Specifically, it paves the way for the UK to manage its own fishing quotas, as well as deciding who gets to access British waters. Done properly, this could result in huge gains for the natural environment.

Fisheries are an example of a common pool resource – whereby access to a resource is open to all. Coupled with rational individual actors, common pool resources rarely experience sustainability. In the absence of regulation, such resources will be perpetually exploited, until, eventually, they collapse entirely. This fact has long been understood, from economists-come-ecologists such as William Forster Lloyd, Elinor Ostrom, and perhaps most famously of all, Garrett Hardin, with his eminent 1968 paper The Tragedy of the Commons.

Scale of the problem

According to a report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, approximately 58% of fisheries are classified as ‘fully fished’ (i.e. operating at, or close to, optimal yield levels), and a further 31% are overexploited, whereby they are fished at a biologically unsustainable level. WWF estimate that the global fishing fleet is between two to three times larger than what the oceans can realistically support. Closer to home, favourite fish species such as haddock and cod have been removed from the Good Fish Guide, a website run by the Marine Conservation Society which informs British consumers about the sustainability of various seafood species which they can expect to find at their local supermarket or fishmonger.

The problem of overfishing extends far beyond the specific species in question. Given just how intricately enmeshed marine ecosystems can be, an unnaturally rapid depletion of one species can have serious implications for many others. For instance, the unsustainable extraction of herbivorous fish from oceans can lead to elevated levels of algal growth, which in sufficient quantities can become toxic for other species which remain. Further, when essential keystone predators such as sharks and tuna are overfished, there tends to be a swelling in the numbers of fish species lower down the food chain, which can similarly knock ecosystems out of kilter.

As well as being environmentally troubling, overfishing poses obvious economic difficulties, too. Within the EU alone, it is thought that unsustainable fishing results in €3 billion of lost productivity per annum, taking an estimated 100,000 jobs along with it. Globally, the burden of declining fish stocks has fallen most heavily on the world’s poor, with estimates from the World Bank and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation claiming that between 90% and 97% of those employed in the fishing industry – whose income is patently dependent upon reliable and plentiful fish stocks – come from developing nations.

Answers from the Arctic

Given the capricious and ever fluctuating nature of fish shoals, it may appear difficult to know where Governments can even begin to act, should they wish to implement policies to ensure that fisheries remain, or once again become, sustainable. However, that is not to say there are no antecedents whatsoever.

Perhaps the best-known example amongst environmental economists of a policy which has enjoyed success, at least relative to that of other schemes, is Iceland’s system of ‘individual transferable quotas’ (ITQs). Such quotas grant individual fishers the privilege to land a certain quantity of fish, typically by weight, within a given time frame. ITQs can also be traded, meaning that if a fisher wishes to relinquish all or part of their allowance, they can sell it to other, perhaps more efficient, players in the industry. Importantly, the amount of fish which can be extracted from the ocean will, or ought to, be set at a level which is ecologically sustainable – i.e. allows fish numbers to replenish at a rate equal to or quicker than that at which they are removed.

ITQs are seen to be better than the more rudimentary system of ‘total allowable catch’ (TAC), which simply states the amount of fish which can be extracted from the ocean by all involved, collectively. This has led to perverse and often dangerous consequences, such as ‘fishing derbies’, whereby competing fishers are effectively encouraged to recklessly race against each other to harvest as much fish as they possibly can until the TAC is exhausted.

It is true that ITQs do not offer a perfect solution to the problem of overfishing. They require strong (i.e. expensive) governmental oversight and enforcement to function properly, and the task of setting the quota still falls on fallible bureaucrats, susceptible to regulatory capture and Hayekian knowledge problems. In this respect, the tragedy of the commons could quickly become the tragedy of government failure. Indeed, there is widespread anxiety amongst the environmental and scientific community that the existing EU quotas are worryingly generous, and do little to effectively engender sustainability in fishing. 

There are also questions about how quotas ought to be allocated to fishers. Generally, they are either based on historical catch, or through an auction. The former can be contentious in the sense that it may unfairly entrench incumbent players who already enjoy a privileged place in the market. Whereas with the latter, fishers are critical of the added cost they have to bear. Nevertheless, when appropriately administered, ITQs do appear to be an intuitive way to circumvent the problem of overfishing.  


Fishing has long been an intimate part of many countries’ history. Particularly for island nations like the UK, it has often been the only genuine source of income for entire communities. It is not surprising, therefore, that many feel an innate desire to shelter fishers from what some may regard as the vicious and unfeeling realities of global market competition.

However much one may wish to help fishers, though, it is increasingly apparent that the unsustainable nature of the current system does not do so. As scientific knowledge twinned with economic understanding has advanced, it is clear that to continue as we currently are would only store up problems in the long run. ITQs have been shown to bolster fish stocks, and are certainly one possible avenue to explore on the voyage to sustainable fishing.

Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue

Three ways product design can reduce poverty overseas

One day, your smartphone will probably be recycled by a teenager on a rubbish tip; perhaps in Ghana or Nigeria. Months before that, it will likely have been repaired and sold on by an entrepreneur in the same country.  The health and livelihoods of these women and men depend on the way we design our products in the EU – the toxic chemicals we permit and the ease of repair that we require. 

Most of the electronic goods we dispose of eventually end up in developing countries (for computers, the figure is 90%). Most of this equipment is repaired and sold on; creating jobs and allowing access to cheap IT for those who would otherwise not benefit from it. In Accra, Ghana, for example, the refurb sector provides more than 30,000 jobs, and 80% of devices are either secondhand, repaired or refurbished.

However, there is also a dark side to this story. Your mobile phone contains arsenic, lead and a host of other toxic materials that pose a threat to life when it is no longer (re)useable. If the phone is sent to landfill, these chemicals can leach into soil and groundwater. Under appropriate conditions, recycling is safe. But if the recycling is conducted by a child with no safety gear on a Ghanian rubbish tip, the consequences can be brutal. Unfortunately, the latter is common. The biggest e-waste dump in the world is just outside Accra.

This newly released Tearfund paper examines how product design standards (and in particular the EU’s Ecodesign legislation) could be used to enhance the livelihoods of those engaged in repair and recycling in poor nations, rather than endangering them. This perspective is entirely absent from the debate about these standards at present.

The paper represents our first investigation of this important issue, but we can already draw three conclusions:

  1. Ambitious, open design standards could improve the livelihoods of repair and remanufacturing entrepreneurs in the Global South;
  2. Restrictive standards that allow manufacturers to exert a monopoly over repair and upgrade could damage these livelihoods;
  3. Restricting the use of hazardous chemicals (like those on the list of ‘Substances of Very High Concern’) could improve the health of huge numbers of children and adults currently involved in the informal recycling of electronics.

At present, design standards such as the EU’s Ecodesign measures are intended to improve the resource efficiency of products sold in Europe, which is a worthy aim. With a bit more thought, they could also be used to improve the lives of some of the poorest people in the world.

Richard Gower is the Senior Associate for Economics and Policy at Tearfund, an international development NGO. This blog also appeared on Tearfund’s JustPolicy platform

The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue 

Cracking a nut with a sledgehammer: how killing diesel risks taking local clean energy with it

Diesel engines don’t have a good rep these days. But while most public attention has been focused on those with wheels choking our streets, it’s a different bunch that the Government has actually been cracking down on.

Every year the Government runs a reverse auction for electricity generators (and some storage and ‘demand shifting’ projects) called the capacity market. Winners are granted public subsidy to be available during the winter to provide power if supplies become tight. What the Government really wants this to do is to incentivise new, large gas plants. But it turns out it’s cheaper to build small diesel plants. Few gas plants can compete - and thus few get built. Instead, we now have up to 2GW of diesel generators installed locally. This is not good press for the Government: diesel has high carbon emissions and local air quality impacts. We shouldn’t be subsidising them (nor should we be subsidising coal plants, by the same token). So the Government set out to cut them out of the picture.

So far, so good. But what happened next risks undermining not just diesel, but the shift to local, clean, flexible energy too. What went wrong?

A quick rewind. The power sector has seen radical changes in the last decade. The major story has, of course, been renewables. Much renewables capacity in the UK is locally installed, which ushers in a fascinating new paradigm in which power doesn’t just flow from the beating hearts of vast coal, gas and nuclear plants out to the veins and capillaries of towns and villages. Now our homes, businesses and fields are themselves centres of energy; either used onsite or transmitted to local consumers.

This actually makes a lot of sense. You cannot transmit power without losing some of it. The further it travels, the more you lose. The UK wastes 8% of the electricity it generates in moving it from A to B (and over 50% overall if you include thermal power station inefficiency). But generating wasted electricity still costs money - and still incurs wear and tear of infrastructure used to transport it - all of which costs bill payers. If electricity is generated closer to demand, lower losses should entail a more efficient system, and thus lower costs overall. 

The rules governing the use of wires and pylons by generators and suppliers of electricity were not designed to support local generators, but they do end up reflecting the fact they do not use as much of the total network. There are 14 regional electricity networks, each of which connects into the larger national grid. Suppliers with customers in those regional networks pay charges based on the amount of electricity they buy into them at peak times. If local generators produce electricity during those periods less electricity needs to be imported from the national grid. This saves the suppliers money in reduced charges, part of which is then passed onto those local generators as a reward. This is called an ‘embedded benefit’, and it helps incentivise building generation closer to where electricity is consumed.

At least it did.

Connected locally, diesel plants can do what big, central gas plants cannot - access these embedded benefits. Take this revenue stream away, the Government thought, and perhaps gas will be able to compete again. Ever since, there has been pressure on Ofgem to do just that. And three weeks ago they announced a cut of up to 93% - almost entirely removing it. 

So much for diesels. But this also deals a blow to renewables and storage projects (such as batteries or pumped hydro) connected locally, of which there is several times more capacity than there is diesel. Worse, unlike subsidy cuts which only affect future projects, this hits existing projects too - punishing them for a problem they didn’t cause. Reduced projected revenue, and increased uncertainty, is expected to cool investment in local, clean, flexible electricity infrastructure. Storage - that oft-touted key to a renewable future - could be hit particularly hard. With access to few public support levers, projects often rely on being able to deliver power at times when rewards are available to build a business case. 

But was this simply an unintended consequence?

Actual rule change is undertaken by industry panels, which are dominated by sector incumbents including the ‘Big Six’. Only they have the personnel and capacity to resource such involved work. The panel that presented proposals to Ofgem in this case did not have a single renewable energy or community energy representative on it. In the consultation that preceded the final decision seven out of nine of the big commercial players were opposed to the benefit. The two in favour either have no large central generation assets of their own, or their own interest in renewables.

Whether the product of genuine manipulation, or simply the inertial imbalance of representation on Ofgem’s panels, it is the incumbent generators who won. They are, theoretically at least, now more likely to be able to build new gas stations - as diesel competitiveness is reduced - capturing public funds in the process. And the renewable and storage projects causing such havoc for their business models just lost revenue. 

So it’s the transition to a local, clean, smart - and ultimately cheap - energy system that is losing out.

Which raises several questions. Should Ofgem’s remit formally incorporate the UK’s 2050 climate target, given its pivotal role in shaping the systems that must get us there? Should incumbents be allowed to continue dominating the processes that evolve regulations? And should the Government ensure that Ofgem is driving our energy system to one that is lower cost, more local and lower carbon?

Our answers would be: yes, no and yes. The rapid (and urgent) transition in the design and operation of our energy systems for a liveable planet simply demands it.

Max Wakefield is lead campaigner at 10:10a charity that focuses on practical, participatory and positive solutions to climate change. 10:10 work with everyone, from policy makers and politicians to community energy groups and schools, to create the practical and cultural change necessary for a rapid transition to a low carbon UK. You can join 10:10’s campaign to challenge Ofgem’s decision here

The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

Gove’s green guarantee: reforming the Common Agricultural Policy

On the Andrew Marr Show last weekend, the new Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, offered some succinct and unambiguous answers on the outline of agricultural subsidies post-Brexit. Of particular note, he confirmed that wealthy landowners could expect to receive less money in the form of subsidies after the current Parliament.

The Common Agricultural Policy and its problems

At present, the regulatory and funding systems which govern the British countryside are dominated by the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This regime sees the UK receive over £3 billion per annum, which is allocated to farmers and landowners alike. Underpinning the CAP are two ‘pillars’, which dictate as to where public money is directed. Pillar I funding consists of measures such as income support (money awarded per hectare of land owned), and receives three quarters of the total CAP budget. Pillar II funding, which is paid out through each EU member state’s Rural Development Programme, is supposed to encourage environmentally sustainable farming practices in return for cash payments.

Unfortunately, this system has a number of perverse unintentional environmental implications. Firstly, the strict requirements for Pillar I payments mean that farmers have a fiscal incentive to avoid agri-environment practices. One instance of this playing out in reality is reports of some farmers felling trees under the justification that it will increase the amount of land on which they can farm, and thus claim subsidies for.

Secondly, by subsidising inefficient farming operations, the CAP has allowed agriculture to take place in areas it otherwise would not. Hill farming, for instance, is rarely economic, as the market price received for produce cultivated on hillsides would not cover the costs of production – it is only thanks to subsidies that the practice persists. Without subsidies, therefore, this land would go unfarmed, potentially allowing more afforestation in the uplands, and increased biodiversity as a result.

The future of agricultural subsidies after Brexit

With woodland coverage in the UK having shrunk to just 13% of the total land area, society is missing out on a wide range of benefits that trees offer. A report from the Forestry Commission cites how trees purify the air, serve as natural flood defences, and are even associated with improving mental health amongst individuals. It is for exactly these reasons that Bright Blue launched its campaign earlier this year for the Government to improve tree planting incentives for farmers after Brexit.

But what other funding priorities should the new post-Brexit agricultural policy have? The National Trust has called for taxpayer money to be paid out to farmers only where clear public benefits are delivered. They have also pointed out the fact that there are certain aspects to agriculture which degrade the natural environment, such as through the excessive use of harmful fertilisers, and which currently are actively rewarded by the CAP. Thus, a more targeted system of granting funds to farmers would allow the Government to remove or reduce payments from those who engage in such detrimental practices.

Echoing this perspective is Professor Dieter Helm of the University of Oxford, who argues that the problem is not that farmers receive public money per se, but rather the ends to which it supports. Further, he argues that farmers should be regulated to maintain the land to a certain level in a way that avoids harming the wider environment and that public funds should be earmarked to directly purchase public goods from farmers.

The consequences of Brexit on the agricultural community will be pronounced, perhaps more so than for any other sector of the economy. Many farmers are anxious that the end to subsidy payments could imperil their businesses and livelihoods. Yet such fears may be premature and unwarranted. In 1973, New Zealand’s farmers faced a comparable situation when Britain – one of its then major trading partners for foodstuffs like lamb and dairy – joined the European Economic Community and thereby adopted its external tariffs.

New Zealand responded by removing all of its agricultural subsidies in 1984 for food production and fertiliser use. These subsidies had been blamed for environmental degradation, low productivity, and inducing a lack of innovation within the sector. Once withdrawn, some smaller farmers who lacked the requisite economies of scale went out of business. But many others successfully embraced innovations in science and technology as the means to realise increasing yields, and began to utilise the differing types of land more effectively and more efficiently. Accordingly, New Zealand’s agricultural sector enjoyed average real terms growth of 4% for the next 15 years and has since established itself as a key component of the global food supply network.

In terms of the environment, the results have been mixed. With the lucrative subsidies scrapped, farmers found it less affordable to purchase artificial fertilisers and pesticides, and their use declined accordingly. Moreover, rates of afforestation increased, and the total number of hectares of land dedicated to pasture fell. However, critics of New Zealand’s approach have cited concerns about how the rate of conversion of indigenous grassland to exotic pasture increased in the South Island by 67% between the period 1990-2001 and 2001-2008. In addition, by excessively focusing on its comparative advantage in livestock production – a highly greenhouse gas-intensive activity – New Zealand has become the largest emitter of livestock emissions per capita.


In leaving the EU, and by extension the constraints of the CAP, Britain has presented itself with an historic opportunity to review the relationship between the Government and the agricultural sector. The substantial sums of money which are currently sent to subsidise inefficient, and at times environmentally injurious, farming operations can be redirected to finance projects and farming practices that improve the environment.

During the debates which took place in the run up to the 23rd June 2016, there were only cursory mentions of the implications of Brexit for the environment, with the Remain side highlighting the potential loss of environmental regulation, and the Leave side promoting the opportunity to relinquish the EU’s unwieldly CAP. We now have a Government re-committed to “being the first generation to leave the environment in a better condition” than it inherited. Certainly, Gove’s comments this weekend indicate his desire to use Brexit and the UK’s departure from the CAP to further that ambition.

Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue

Post-Brexit trade deals should have high environmental standards

Supporters are lauding Britain’s exit from the European Union as an opportunity for the UK to forge trade relations with new partners, and create better regulatory standards and agencies that are firmly grounded in British law and in the interests of Britain. While it is correct that this offers an opportunity, there are challenges associated with leaving well-established, definitive, and respected regulatory frameworks.

One such group we will be leaving is the ‘EU action plan against wildlife trafficking’, which offers a robust, if imperfect, response to the illegal trade of ivory, plants, bird, and furs, amongst other things. This action plan has gone over and above the international standards set by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and while it has led to an enormous number of seizures of wildlife products at Europe’s borders, it is patchily enforced and fails to comprehensively address demand-side issues.

While it is possible that Britain could craft a better response to this problem, some conservationists have already expressed concern. In particular, the Government should avoid the approach outlined in a recently leaked document to water down its commitment to stopping illegal wildlife trade in the interests of better trading relations with developing countries. As the Government moves into the Brexit process and begins to negotiate trade deals with other nations, ministers should note that it is possible to have a robust stance in opposition to the illegal wildlife trade, and forge dynamic, expansive trading relations with developing countries around the world.

Negotiating trade deals with high environmental standards

Writing for Conservative Home, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Andrea Leadsom, stated it was the Government’s intention to make “UK rules on trading ivory amongst the toughest in the world”. While the illegal trade of wildlife was absent from the 2017 Conservative manifesto, the previous two manifestos included pledges to totally ban the sale of all ivory in the UK.

One way the Government might seek to do this is through environmental clauses in any future trade agreement with the EU. The Prime Minister has outlined her plan for a free trade agreement (FTA) with the EU, as opposed to joining a preexisting arrangement like the European Economic Area (EEA), and the number of FTAs that include environmental provisions has skyrocketed since the 1990s.

The most basic of these provisions falls into the broad category of ‘measures to protect or enhance the environment’. This clause has become standard practice in FTAs, and includes a commitment to not weaken environmental regulatory regimes in order to undercut competitors or attract investment, which would prevent the Government from pursuing the rumoured deregulatory agenda on climate change or illegal wildlife trade legislation.

Cooperation clauses in trade agreements

Should Britain wish to make its rules the “toughest in the world”, there are other potential clauses of an FTA with the EU that the Government could pursue. A cooperation clause would allow the UK to maintain the current level of cross-border customs cooperation that allow agencies across Europe to detect and impound illegally imported wildlife goods such as ivory, while also compelling the EU to more stridently enforce its current rules on the illegal trade of wildlife.

Under the current system, governed by the multinational CITES, the EU is registered as a Regional Economic Integration Organisation (REIO), which means that it acts in the organisation on behalf of its members, and is accountable to CITES’ rules and standards. However, as the problem of illegal trade in wildlife is concentrated in several EU countries, namely Spain, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ireland, which predominantly act as transit sites to larger Asian markets, the EU struggles to hold its individual members to international standards without violating its commitment to national sovereignty.

With the inclusion of environmental standards in an FTA with Britain, both groups would be held accountable to the highest possible standards, with governments being able to bring action against other states at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that are failing to meet their environmental obligations. In one example, in a case brought by India, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Thailand against the United States over seafood imports, the WTO ruled that nations should be able to take measures to conserve exhaustible resources, a precedent that would apply in cases of illegal trade in wildlife.

Some free trade agreements establish independent bodies of their own to monitor environmental standards across signatory parties. In NAFTA, environmental clauses established a Commission on Environmental Cooperation, which is obliged to investigate complaints from citizens and non-governmental organisations that signatory states are not adhering to their environmental standards. This would hold governments accountable for rules pertaining to the illegal trade in wildlife not just to the international community, but also to expert organizations such as WWF.

These same principles could be worked into trade agreements with developing countries, establishing clauses that will make sure China is held accountable to its recent commitment to banning the ivory trade, and potential trade agreements with ASEAN members in South East Asia, which currently act as a gateway to the larger Chinese market for ivory through their significantly weaker regulation of the trade.

While some in the Government may believe such clauses would reduce the willingness of potential trade partners to work with Britain because of supposed economic costs, on the contrary, the willingness of China to work with the international community on environmental issues has shown the potential benefits of further regulation. Indeed, China may be a valuable regional partner on halting the illegal trade in wildlife, as well as environmental issues more broadly, as they have recently emerged as one of the most committed global environmental leaders. The illegal trade in wildlife has been shown in numerous studies to be tied to dissident groups, terrorism, social unrest, exploitation, and drugs – all issues that developing governments in the region are seeking to tackle.

As Britain embarks on a new role in the world, with an ambitious plan for its trading relations, it’s worth bearing in mind how broad and flexible trade agreements can be, and the enormous potential for Britain to lead the way in environmental protection and the crackdown on the illegal wildlife trade by combining its trade agenda with its environmental commitments.

Neil Reilly is a research assistant at Bright Blue

Ending farm subsidies after Brexit could benefit the economy and the environment

A Brexit-driven reconfiguration of the UK’s food and agricultural sector suggests that a period of significant structural adjustment lies ahead. Set against an industry already in the midst of rapid technological displacement, value-chain disruption and regulatory change, a transformative event such as Brexit appears to add to existing uncertainty.

However, the process, if mapped successfully, can be a positive one. The UK’s current position is not unique. In the 1980s, the government of New Zealand instigated a reform programme to transform the country’s food and agriculture sector. The results were immediate and painful as well as long-term and beneficial.

At the core of the transformation that shook New Zealand’s agriculture sector in the 1980s and 1990s was a pressing need to access new markets in the face of external economic shocks and structural adjustments, such as the UK’s decision to join the then European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. The New Zealand experience indicates that an agenda focused on long-term goals can deliver significant economic and social benefits, but may come with considerable short-term costs. The battle about to commence in the UK is set to be as brutal, complex and ideological as that which determined the direction of the British economy in the late-1970s and early 1980s.

The removal and substantial reduction of various agricultural subsidies were a hallmark of the 1984-1989 Lange Administration. The robust programme dubbed “Rogernomics” after his Minister of Finance, Roger Douglas, led to greater international competition, the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs and to a number of farmers losing their farms. The abolition list included price support, income support, fertiliser subsidies, irrigation, transport, and land development. In addition, farmers and Producer Boards lost tax concessions, free government services and concessionary funding.

The economic upshot, however, contained plenty of positives. Fewer than 800 farms – 1% of the total number of farms in New Zealand – went out of business. Even that proved temporary and the number of small farms increased over the 1990s. Diversification into higher-value foodstuffs such as horticulture became a consistent theme and rural tourism took off. Productivity gains became the norm to the extent that multifactor productivity in the agricultural sector improved at a faster rate than before the reforms and also faster than in other parts of the economy since 1984.

But was there an environmental and social price to be paid for all these output and productivity gains? The evidence suggests not. The removal of subsidies meant that farmers have applied fertiliser more efficiently. In employment terms, average annual employment growth in accommodation and food services registered an annual growth of 2% between 1989 and 2012, despite these sub-sectors’ reliance on a low-wage workforce. Direct agriculture employment fell but rose across the wider sub-sector indicating a positive impact on the overall food value chain and associated industries such as tourism.

Crucially, New Zealand offered various transition relief measures to offset the initial shock of eliminating subsidies. This included a one-off grant of NZ$45,000 to abandon farming as well as debt restructuring. Some 7% of farms in New Zealand benefitted from these transitional relief measures. Farmers were also provided with better access to social-security schemes that catered to the unemployed and to low-income families.

A further set of reforms, implemented between 1999 and 2001, saw the removal of the export monopoly enjoyed by most producer boards. This included the Dairy Board and allowed free competition between the boards and other exporters. To continue research and development in the decentralised market environment, DairyNZ was formed and was funded by a levy on dairy farmers, which was subject to a vote every six years. DairyNZ focuses on research, training programmes, bio-security and advocating on behalf of dairy farmers. Similarly, Beef + Lamb New Zealand Ltd, is a farmer-owned, levy-funded organisation, which undertakes research, training, and advocacy.

More recently in 2009, the government initiated the Primary Growth Partnership (PGP) programme to foster innovation across the value chain in the agriculture and food sectors. The programme envisaged a partnership between government and private sector. To encourage exports, the government plays a key role in maintaining the reputation of the “New Zealand” brand. This involves ensuring that exporters maintain high standards for food safety, bio-security and animal welfare. Some examples of current PGP projects are to:

  1. Spread best practices through knowledge sharing across the avocado industry, the objective being to triple yields to 12 tonnes per hectare and quadruple industry returns to NZ$280 million by 2023
  2. Encourage the use of prototype harvesting systems that can target specific species and sizes of fish, and ensure they are in better condition than those caught using traditional trawls
  3. Promote demand-driven value chain for the red-meat industry, bringing farmers closer to processors and consumers
  4. Develop tools and software to improve fertiliser-use efficiency and reduce loss of nutrients into waterways and pastures
  5. Improve precision application of fertiliser after remote sensing of nutrient status in hill-country farms

The New Zealand experience indicates, above all, that a subsidy-free agricultural landscape not only can deliver economic and financial gains, it can also deliver wider social and environmental benefits. The future of British agriculture beyond 2020 when the CAP is likely to be reformed could prove more sustainable and better for our environment than we might currently think.

Richard Ferguson is Managing Director of Ferguson Cardo

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

The best way to preserve our environment is to conserve our energy

Bright Blue’s ‘Green conservatives?’ research, published last month, provides a close-up view of what Conservatives think on environmental issues and the need to tackle climate change.

Respondents to the poll are very clear: protecting the environment and tackling climate change are priorities for the majority of Conservatives. As well as showing strong support for investment in renewables, it was great to see those polled displaying high awareness of smart meters, storage technology and solar panels, with 73% of those polled either having a smart meter or being interested in getting one installed.

Bright Blue’s findings on willingness to take up new technology in the home reflects Smart Energy GB’s own research. The latest edition of Smart energy outlook, our bi-annual national survey of public opinion on energy use and smart meters, indicated that of those who understand what smart meters are, more than seven in ten already have one or are interested in getting one installed.

Between now and 2020, smart gas and electricity meters are being offered to every household and small business in England, Scotland and Wales, and almost 6 million have now been installed across the country.

Through smart meters the energy system is being digitised, enabling better integration of renewable generation, storage and smart technologies, which consumers can benefit from.

Smart meters will also enable better management of our energy grid, meaning less need for large polluting power stations, and better integration of renewable energy at scale. And smart meters will make it easy to fully benefit from in-home energy storage, electric vehicles and solar panels, which all contribute to further erode dependence on fossil fuel generation. Ultimately, smart meters put people in control. By providing them with near-real time information on their energy use in a language they understand, our research also shows that they contribute to behaviour change in the home. And once people are engaged with their energy, there is no limit to what can happen.

In a recent paper commissioned by Smart Energy GB, academic Dr Jeff Hardy outlined how new ways of engaging in the energy market would open up to consumers. From peer-to-peer energy trading to third party control and energy services companies, he showed how we might all be buying energy in the not-too-distant future, and each mechanism relies on smart meters as key enablers.

We all know that predicting the future is a dangerous game and the most exciting innovations may be those that we as yet cannot conceive. But one thing, I would hazard, is certain: Great Britain’s path to reducing carbon emissions requires progress on all fronts, with new technologies deployed at scale alongside cleaner generation, underpinned by people engaged with their energy.

Ultimately, the cheapest energy is that which we do not consume, and by putting consumers in control, smart meters help us save energy while preserving the environment we all cherish and depend upon to thrive.

Claire Maugham is Director of Policy and Communication at Smart Energy GB

Transport innovation can cut carbon and reduce pollution

With a snap general election in the offing, climate change – and in particular air pollution - looks set to feature on the agenda this time around due to a breach of EU air pollution limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) across much of the country.  In fact the UK is one of five EU countries that is persistently contravening legal nitrogen dioxide levels with factory- and vehicle-related pollution.  Last November the NGO Client Earth won a High Court case against the government over its failure to tackle air pollution in the UK.

Over the past few years academics and health professionals have put forward a wealth of robust evidence looking at the impact of dirty air in our towns and cities.

Recent initiatives include London Air, a monitoring and forecasting network which works alongside local councils to show current pollution levels.  Last year the UK Health Alliance on Climate Change, representing some 600,000 health professionals across 15 bodies, released a report called ‘A Breath of Fresh Air’ in response to their members’ concerns for the health of those living in areas with high pollution.

The alarm bells are ringing but Westminster still doesn’t seem to be listening.  The European Commission has handed the UK a final warning over its repeated failure to comply with EU regulations over NO2 levels, giving just two months to show how it intends to comply or face the prospect of a further court battle in the European Court of Justice by the end of the year. Substantial fines are a distinct possibility.

In response to the growing crisis, local councils and cities across the country are beginning to tackle these issues.  London had exceeded its annual air pollution limits just five days into 2017 hence the introduction of a new ‘T-Charge’ in October which will charge the most polluting private vehicles if they drive through central London.

The widening and bringing forward of the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) that will charge the dirtiest vehicles across most of London is also welcome, but unlikely to come into effect until 2019 at the earliest. In the meantime, the students and children at more than 800 educational establishments across the capital are being exposed to illegal levels of air pollution now.

The awarding of funding to five Low Emission Neighbourhoods (LENs) across London means that parking a diesel vehicle in Marylebone will imminently face a 50% surcharge compared to a petrol vehicle and it will be possible to fine vehicles that refuse to switch off their engines when idling.

Ashden has been searching the country for initiatives such as these to find the winner of our first ever Clean Air in Towns and Cities Award as part of the 2017 Ashden Awards. Our two shortlisted applicants, Nottingham City Council and Big Birmingham Bikes, are working tirelessly to tackle this issue in their cities, both of which have been instructed by the government to introduce Clean Air Zones by 2020, although their work to reduce local air pollution precedes the government plan.

Birmingham City Council’s Big Birmingham Bikes project has provided more than 4000 residents with a free bicycle, as well as free lessons and guided cycle rides to over 1000 people across the city.  They have focused their efforts upon the neighbourhoods with the highest levels of deprivation, the very people who suffer most from poor air pollution. By working closely with local residents and more than 50 community organisations they have enabled over 200,000 miles to be cycled on the new bikes, of which at least 37,000 miles would have otherwise been made by car.  In addition to reducing congestion and improving people’s mobility, health and wellbeing, the scheme is also helping to increase access to workplaces, education and training.

Nottingham City Council has had a progressive, ambitious approach to transport across the city for many years. Despite government cuts, it has expanded its work in recent years and is the first local authority in the UK to introduce a workplace parking levy. This levy charges businesses in the city for each staff car parking space, encouraging staff to use public transport instead and creating a reliable revenue stream that is ringfenced for further transport work. The money has been used in part to fund a new tram line, towards Nottingham’s fleet of electric buses (the largest in Europe), and for the expansion of an ‘Oyster-style’ smartcard to be used across the city. As a result, the city’s public transport usage is one of the highest in the country with 60 million passenger trips made last year, helping to get cars off the road and address associated air pollution.

The sustainable transport industry is starting to gain momentum around the UK.  As well as city-wide projects to improve low carbon transport infrastructure and cut air pollution like those mentioned, we are also seeing the rise and rise of electric vehicles and pioneering initiatives like using waste heat from the London Underground to warm homes.  With transportation currently responsible for one quarter of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and its emissions increasing at a faster rate than any other sector, there has never been a more pressing need for sustainable transport solutions that improve both air quality and people’s lives.

Mike Snowden is a UK Programme Officer at Ashden, a charity that champions and supports leaders in sustainable energy to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon world.  The 2017 Ashden Awards Ceremony takes place on 15 June at the Royal Geographic Society with former Vice-President of the USA Al Gore as keynote speaker.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue