From soil carbon to flood prevention, reforming farm subsidies could be Brexit's upside.
Full disclosure: As a Brit now living in the United States, I was firmly in the Remain camp when it comes to Brexit. And continue to be so.
That said, I've been pleasantly surprised by signs the Conservative government is still betting big on low carbon growth. Indeed, from electric vehicle infrastructure investments to talk of a tax on single-use plastics, it appears that the anti-environment, climate change denying wing of the Conservative party has been hushed by voices who—while I may not agree with them on many, many things—at least understand the direction that the broader global economy is going.The latest sign of a positive shift in the conversation comes again from Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove who, in a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference, took aim at the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) system of subsidies. Gove roundly criticized CAP, which environmentalists have long derided as perverse, and laid out his thinking that post-Brexit subsidies should be tied to ecosystem services and environmental land management practices. Here's just a small excerpt of what could, in parts, easily be mistaken for a TreeHugger blog post:
"...the imperative to husband, indeed wherever possible, enhance our natural capital -- safeguarding our oceans, cleaning our rivers, keeping our soils fertile, protecting biodiversity -- has to be at the heart of any plan for our country and our world. Because we cannot expect to live prosperous and civilised lives in the future unless we recognise that we have to care for that which gives us all life - our planet."
Gove specifically called out global warming, desertification, soil erosion, deforestation habitat loss, air pollution and poisoned oceans, and suggested that subsidies should invest in "environmental enhancement" that reverses these trends. From no-till farming to habitat conservation, from reducing pesticide use to producing renewable energy, there are many ways this could go. Interestingly, the proposed policies appear also to move beyond agriculture to support almost any landowner in "planting woodland, providing new habitats for wildlife, increasing biodiversity, contributing to improved water quality and returning cultivated land to wildflower meadows or other more natural states.”
This is obviously encouraging. And perhaps a little surprising, given that much of the Leave rhetoric was pushed by the anti-wind farm, climate-denying UK Independence Party. However, we probably shouldn't count our organic chickens before they have hatched. As James Murray of Business Green points out in his mostly glowing review of the speech, there are still many, many pitfalls that could scupper Gove's vision. From the final shape of the Brexit deal with the European Union, to Britain's own powerful farming lobby, the forces that have shaped the status quo will have many opportunities to scupper reform.
Nevertheless, with Britain reeling from flooding in recent years, I'm hopeful that this marks yet another inflection point where the usual Left-Right divide on climate change and environmental destruction has, instead, shifted to a consensus on the problem and a debate about how to best solve it. After all, with Britain now poised to leave the European Union, the farming sector, along with the rest of the country, will have to find new ways to compete and thrive. What better way than actually looking after and enhancing the natural resources that we all rely on for our survival?
Here's hoping we see similar progress in the United States soon.