The UK has barely left the EU and already the Tory government has effectively backtracked on two promises it made in relation to Brexit.
Never Bee-lieve a Tory government
First, it authorised the use of neonicotinoids in England within days of leaving the bloc. There’s an EU-wide ban on the pesticides, with a mechanism for “emergency authorisations” for their use in limited circumstances. In 2017, then environment secretary Michael Gove promised that:
Unless the evidence base changes again, the government will keep these restrictions in place after we have left the EU.
The UK’s greenlighting of the pesticide caused a hefty public backlash because neonicotinoids are harmful to bees and other pollinators. So the move risks endangering insects in the country, who – to quote Gove – play “such a key part” in the UK’s food system.
Nonetheless, the Conservative government has authorised the use of neonicotinoid thiamethoxam on sugar beet crops in 2021, after lobbying from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and British Sugar. It’s approved the pesticide’s use through an “emergency authorisation. The approval was granted “in recognition of the potential danger posed to the 2021 crop from beet yellows virus”.
As the EU also allows for such exceptional approvals, the UK move isn’t a total break with the bloc’s norms. But the optics are dire, given it did so within days of leaving the union. Of course, it’s pollinators who will truly bear the brunt of the fatal decision.
It’s also taking this action at the very moment when, according to scientists, insect populations are facing “death by a thousand cuts”. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal recently published a collection of studies from scientists on the subject. As the Guardian reported, the experts have documented the “multiple, overlapping threats” faced by insect populations, including “the destruction of wild habitats for farming, urbanisation, pesticides and light pollution”.
University of Connecticut professor David Wagner, who was the lead author of the analysis, said that many insect populations are seeing drops of 1-2% a year. He put this into sobering perspective:
You’re losing 10-20% of your animals over a single decade and that is just absolutely frightening. You’re tearing apart the tapestry of life.
Dumping on the world, Tory-style
A few days after its bee-killing shenanigans, another Brexit surprise came to light. The EU banned the export of unsorted, non-recyclable plastic waste to non-OECD countries from 1 January. The OECD is a 37-member intergovernmental economic organisation made of wealthier countries. Britain, however, is not following suit.
Instead, the UK has introduced a system of “prior informed consent”, the Guardian reported, whereby “the importer has to agree to accept the waste, and has the opportunity to refuse it”. Commenting on the revelation, director of the Basel Action Network Jim Puckett said:
We had assumed the UK would at least follow the EU, and so it is a shock to find out now that instead they choose to have a far weaker control procedure, which can still permit exports of contaminated and difficult-to-recycle plastics to developing countries.
As a 2020 report revealed, the UK is the world’s second biggest generator of plastic waste per capita. Meanwhile, analysis from Greenpeace’s Unearthed has previously shown that the country exports vast amounts of waste to non-OECD countries, which typically are less equipped to sustainably deal with non-recyclable and unsorted waste. In the first seven months of 2020, for example, the UK exported 64,786 tonnes of plastic waste to non-OECD countries.
The Conservative government has previously pledged to ban exports of plastic waste to non-OECD countries. After its ‘prior informed consent’ system came to light, a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reiterated this pledge but gave no timetable for action.
Assume the worst
The UK’s first few days outside the EU have shown people like Puckett that it’s not safe to ‘assume’ that the UK will follow the EU in terms of environmental standards. Making that assumption is, of course, understandable because that’s what the Conservative government has regularly promised in the lead up to Brexit. But as leaks have shown, the government has long seen “room for interpretation” on such standards, which it says will result in “very different” interpretations of commitments between the EU and the UK.
In short, it’s probably best to assume the worst. Opting to poison bees and keep dumping waste on poorer countries is undoubtedly just the start of atrocious things to come.
Featured image via the Telegraph / YouTube
- Sign the petition to stop the use of bee-killing pesticides.
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