Adjusting to the Local

Life back in Lancashire for the last five weeks has certainly had a different feel to that of Brussels and Strasbourg, with distinctly less travel, although I’ve still managed quite a few train miles within the region to various green and other events; to London for a Local Authorities Pension Fund investment strategy conference, and an unplanned family-related trip to Ireland (with much sadness due to an unexpected bereavement). I hear that for most of February, it also rained in Brussels.

I am missing my fellow MEP colleagues and staff teams, the conviviality, and the sense of influence! But it’s good to re-connect with lots of local and regional Greens, and of course, friends. Now that the Brexit process has started, the action at a local level by individuals, communities, campaign groups and local authorities is more important than ever.

In short, I have been busy with lots of catching up as City and County Councillor, so much so that my intention to carry on fortnightly instead of weekly blogs went out of the window. So this blog is a brief summary to highlight the range rather than the detail of events as former MEP.

The LOCAL..

Lancaster City Council news: Freeman’s Wood is saved!

Firstly, my huge appreciation to fellow Green Lancaster City Councillor Mandy Bannon who was newly-elected (with me in Marsh ward) to Lancaster City Council just three weeks before the European elections last year. I had reassured her I would be there to help her learn the ropes, then got swept off to Europe. She has done  an amazing job of quickly assuming the role of representing Marsh ward – chasing casework, ward projects, campaigns and networking in our little corner of the Lancaster District. And as part of the Friends of Freeman’s Wood, Mandy helped to finally get Freeman’s Wood recognised as a Town Green by Lancashire County Council last month (after five years or more of waiting!). This is a really important achievement in helping secure the Wood against development.

Flood prevention

I recently attended the AGM of the Lune Valley Flood Forum – a fantastically-led community group which looks to ensure the communities affected by flooding have a strong input into city and county policies, and provides very good networking. Chris – a former teacher and now lecturer at the University of Cumbria – is developing teacher training tools for teaching about flooding and climate change prevention across the curriculum. A great initiative. More about the LVFF here

Nanashire

I caught up with some of the Nanas of Lancashire again. While they are not required right now to defend our environment and communities by their roadside vigil at Preston New Road fracking site (as all activities there have ceased), they are busy with plans and supporting other campaign groups including the Youth Strike for Climate. Well done Nanas!

Budget news

February was budget month for both Lancaster City and Lancashire County Councils. At City Council, the Green group of 10 are part of the cross-party administration, with Labour and the Lib Dems. The Greens have three cabinet members who hold the portfolios for Environmental Services (Dave Brookes), Housing (Caroline Jackson), and Economic Regeneration (Tim Hamilton-Cox). The budget is starting to be aligned with the climate emergency action plan. I will report more on this in my overdue report as MEP: Local authorities and the Climate Emergency: From Declaration to Action which covers Lancaster as a case study. Available very shortly!

Meanwhile, in the County Budget, climate measures are far less evident. My tabled amendment included: reinstating the Home Improvement Service, which helps keep people with disabilities and the elderly living with adaptions at home; funding for maintained Nursery Schools, which provide in particular for children with additional needs and are currently under desperate financial pressure, and a new post of climate action coordinator. Within the capital budget, I proposed at least five per cent of the transport grant should be ring-fenced for cycling infrastructure, plus more for pavement repairs from existing budgets. Labour and other opposition groups supported my amendment but with the Tory majority at County, it lost 26 to 41.

Pension Fund Event

Attending the LAPF investment strategy conference as a committee member of Lancashire County Pension Fund – an event funded by investment companies (the Black Rocks of this world) – for the second year running, I have used the opportunity to hammer home the message that corporate investors need to urgently take more leadership on demanding climate action by companies. Not surprisingly, I am recognised there as ‘having an agenda’. This year I received various comments such as “you must be delighted to see climate change mentioned in every workshop and panel session.” To which my answer was “I’m slightly encouraged, but I’d only be delighted if carbon emissions were now drastically reducing as a result of changes in business practices.“  Former speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow,  the after-dinner speaker, was entertaining.

Last week I was back in the Preston meeting of the committee. Lancashire invests far less than the average Local Government Pension Scheme in global equities and therefore has less exposure to fossil fuel companies – definitely a good thing. But there is so much more to be done, and my 7 year efforts at getting a clear commitment to divestment are still not succeeding. I am a lone voice, despite plenty of other councillors on the committee.

REGIONAL: North West

Salford University media department students, The DEBATE, invited me to be on a panel alongside an Extinction Rebellion activist. We debated the effectiveness of different types of campaigning in pushing the green agenda and the Green New Deal. It was very professionally chaired by Joseph Kelly.

I talked about my Green New Deal report at Trafford Green Party’s launch of their local May elections campaign, which I repeated at a public meeting in Lancaster – although no elections here this spring. In essence the Green New Deal is a chance to create jobs, training and reduce poverty whilst tackling the climate crisis. These meetings also gave me an opportunity to share again my wonderful experience as North West Green MEP and the delight –  if I haven’t mentioned it before – of being in a room with 70 other competent, experienced, professional European Greens all committed to action on climate and protecting human rights.

Digital City Festival

This week I was the only politician(!) invited to speak on a panel at the Digital City Festival in Manchester, bringing together the leaders, creators and change-makers who are shaping the future of digital. We discussed the environmental and economic impact and opportunities that can come from applying AI, data and other emerging technologies to achieve green objectives IF rolled out with attention to ensuring good jobs and training, decent two–way communication with the public, and policies to ensure the benefits are widely spread. More Green New Deal in fact.

I also advocated the importance of carbon literacy training. I had interviewed some students about their role in Manchester Metropolitan University’s Carbon literacy project and the associated HySchool project (education about the role of hydrogen in a future renewable energy mix) when I was keynote speaker at their conference five weeks ago in my first engagement as former MEP.

GOOD

International Women’s Day celebrations: I was pleased to be invited onto the BBC’s North West Sunday politics show on International Women’s Day. In answer to their key question- Yes absolutely more women are needed in the Cabinet -indeed more women from all backgrounds are needed in all areas of public life and leadership! Some beautiful photos here on the Guardian website of this year’s commemorations world wide of IW,  which has been held every year on 8 March since 1977, when the UN invited member states to declare a day for women’s rights and world peace.

BAD

All things Corona Virus. Debate is now raging about whether the Government has missed opportunities to stop the spread of the virus during their commitment to the early ‘containment’ phase, and whether more should have been done to test population samples. It appears clear now likely the UK will move into adopting a ‘social distancing’ strategy very soon. Those most likely to be seriously affected and with higher risk of mortality if they contract this disease (people with  underlying health problems and  the elderly) are likely to need the very services provided by local authorities and community organisations whose funding has been hollowed out over years by austerity. If the UK gets to a ‘worse case scenario’ the lack of NHS provision may mean people will be treated at home who otherwise would have stayed in hospital. We can all look out to help people in our communities who may help, or need to selfisolate to prevent catching or spreading the virus. Public Health England is providing a regularly-upated  blog  

Where hope lies….

The Government introduced a big spend budget. It was just on the wrong things.  Government has promised to spend on what is needed to tackle the Corona virus, and it could invest at speed to address the far more threatening climate, biodiversity and inequality emergencies. Green Peer Jenny Jones joins others in writing about this  enormous missed opportunity.

Its important to  keep the pressure on Government but meanwhile do all we can at a local level in the fight to environmental and social justice.

Onwards…

 

(More again on Europe next time. Please consider sharing this Long Read and encourage others to sign up for my newsletters!)

Thanks,

 

Gina

 

 

Budgets, EU Green Deal & Making Votes Matter

There is much to process about the results of the UK general election…but life in Europe will go on with or without the UK MEPs. We are still there for another month. I will share more thoughts another day.

Last week, I luckily managed to get to and from EU Parliament in Brussels, in spite of the ongoing travel disruption from the SNCF signallers strikes which impacts the Eurostar service in France. The strikes began on the 5 December and it is unknown how long they will go on for. This week, I’m in Strasbourg with the UK Green delegation of MEPs.

EU budget cuts endanger tens of thousands of UK jobs

Two weeks ago, EU Member States announced their first negotiating position on the Union’s long-term budget. In short, they propose to cut back on almost everything that the EU does. From infrastructure investments to humanitarian aid and support to farmers. I wrote briefly about this in last week’s Sunday Long Read.

Among the cuts is a proposal to decrease EU research funding by almost a third until 2027, from £100 billion to £71 billion. This is completely unacceptable. We are facing a climate crisis. To tackle that challenge we need a stronger commitment to research and innovation, not a weaker one.

Therefore, on Tuesday last week, the MEPs responsible for negotiating the EU’s next research funding programme met to discuss these recent developments and the way forward. I participated in the meeting as the Greens’ representative.

It was an encouraging meeting, with all political groups agreeing that we have to fight the Council on this. A rare moment of unity among Conservatives, Social Democrats, Liberals and Greens. In the coming negotiations, we will put up a unified front to secure an increased research budget.

A large EU research budget will be hugely beneficial to the UK, at least if we stay in the European Union. As a world leader in innovation, the UK will be able to attract billions of pounds of research funding. Money that will support the careers of many UK researchers and scientists, and help UK businesses innovate to remain successful. Tens of thousands of jobs will to be created, directly and indirectly, through EU research funding.

However, Brexit endangers our access to these funds. If we are no longer a member of the EU, we will not be able to receive from the EU budget as easily, and UK researchers and businesses will have a hard time participating in projects. I am currently preparing a report explaining more on this subject, to be published in January. Follow me here, Twitter or Facebook to get updates about the report.

European Green Deal

Last week, I wrote a blog on the European Green Deal, which is a core pillar of the 2019-2024 strategy of the new EU Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen.

My message was simple: the centrality of the Green Deal is already a big win for us Greens, but we need to be constructive allies to the Commission, and ensure some of our key demands are included in the process.

In my blog I argue that the Commission needs to show ambition by not only aiming at ‘hard policies’ that incentivise the rollout of renewable energy systems and increase the cost of emissions, we also need ‘soft policies’ that change the way we consume, live and travel without putting the responsibility of those changes on individuals – particularly the poorest.

The European Green Deal is a positive step and can bring many solutions to our communities’ problems. Now is the time to act.

GreenWave TV

After the extraordinary plenary session, I sat down with four other UK Green MEPs to discuss the European Green Deal announcement. MEP for Yorkshire and Humber, Magid Magid, chaired the session, and along with my fellow MEPs – Alexandra Philips, Catherine Rowett and Scott Ainslie MEP – we chatted, laughed and shared some great contributions on our visions for the European Green Deal. You can watch it here.

Palestine

Last week I met more NGO representatives from Israel and Palestine. What is clear is that civil society in Palestine looks to Europe for help in fighting against injustice and human rights abuses.

The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), is an initiative by the World Council of Churches that sees volunteers undertake a three-month fieldwork placement as human rights observers. They do not take sides in the conflict, and their only mission is achieving peace in the region. I had previously met volunteers there in August, during my fact-finding visit.

The three women told me accounts of the systemic, structural and symbolic violence occurring in the region. Expanding settlements for Israeli Jews only in the occupied West Bank, means a lack of access to basic resources such as land for agriculture or water for Palestinians. For example, while Israelis have access to around 240 litres of water per person per day, and settlers over 300, Palestinians in the West Bank only have access to 73 litres.

The EAPPI representatives also witnessed the destruction of EU-funded buildings by Israeli settlers. In 2019, 50 schools in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, became under threat of demolition, many of them had been provided with support from the EU.

This year particularly, has seen a high level of demolished structures, with 582 documented cases by EAPPI. This poses serious questions for the EU and its external funding: should we continue the EU-Israel Association Agreement, let alone upgrade it, without Israel’s commitment to the peace process and respect for international humanitarian law?

Good

Finding the good has been difficult this last few days! But as I write, I am now back on the train to Strasbourg, albeit with a different emotion to my usual excitement and anticipation.

However, there are some achievements that we can celebrate: the Green Party ran a very clean and positive election, forcing the first-ever climate debate among political party leaders. And throughout, we promoted our positive vision and policies to deal with the climate crisis.

Bad 

It took 850,000 votes to get just one Green MP re-elected – Caroline Lucas MP! The devastating results of the general election within our continued broken First-Past-The-Post (FTPT) system means the Conservative Party win is described as a ‘landslide win’, despite only increasing the actual vote by 1% – the same as the Green Party. But with their massive majority of 80 seats, this sadly leaves them comfortable to push forward with any parliamentary business, with minimal scrutiny or opposition. Our antiquated electoral system is a colossal failure, giving power to the rich and influential and side-lining a generation of voices. We absolutely must push for proportional representation if we are to be represented properly in a democracy.

Where hope lies

There is no doubt that people want change and now the actual election is over, Greens across the country are ready to work with local communities to reduce carbon emissions in energy and local transport, bringing services closer to home. I have mentioned my Green New Deal for the North West many times before, but I am getting such positive feedback. I do I hope you will read it, if you haven’t already, and if please share with other people. We can still ensure we empower local people to work together to get change for the better, across-the-board.

It was great to see people fighting back immediately for a change in the voting system – do sign this petition here.

Onwards

 

A European Green Deal

The European Commission has finally, and historically, placed the European Green Deal as a core strategy on their 2019-2024 political guidelines. Ursula von Der Leyen, the new Commission President, should be commended for finally putting forward as a key priority the foundations of a plan to tackle climate change. We, of course, were not expecting a detailed plan after two weeks in office – although such a plan is direly needed. Now is the time to take this outline of a green deal and make it into a credible and tangible reality.

From a European Greens/EFA perspective, the group’s key overall messages will be the major criteria against which the group are going to evaluate the Commission’s proposals:

  1. The objectives of the Green Deal must not only be in line with the 1.5°C global warming target; it must be about respecting all planetary boundaries;
  2. The Green Deal must ensure policy coherence. There should be climate/biodiversity/resource-proofing of all policies, including with the CAP and trade policies;
  3. Climate action must go hand-in-hand with the reduction of inequalities;
  4. GND needs a green financial system, rather than just some greening of parts of finance.

The line of thinking is the right one, although of course, these points are just a general thematic overview that should underwrite our approach to the Green Deal. The practical reality must ensure our transition to a more sustainable society with some concrete measures that will rapidly propel us to a zero-carbon, nature-friendly economy, create thousands of jobs, improve health and tackle inequality.

These ideas were included in my report The Green New Deal in the North West, and in concrete terms, we identified areas where a Green New Deal can force much-needed change. The report addresses five key areas:

  1. Renewable energy supply
  2. Energy-efficient buildings
  3. Sustainable transport
  4. A zero-carbon, circular economy
  5. Land use, food and biodiversity

So how do we help the European Commission maintain a focus on these areas? We need to provide tangible solutions with frameworks like The Green New Deal in the North West, that prioritise human and environmental sustainability at the local level, and make them a success story. This model can be replicated on the international stage in institutions like the EU to give our solutions the widest reach.

There is no doubt that some issues will require local solutions, and others will need coordinated efforts with our European partners. The difficulty lies in finding the right balance between local, bottom-up solutions and international standards that need to be regulated for the greater good.

In the EU, energy production and use, including the energy used in transport, account for some 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. The five key areas covered in my report would allow us to tackle the bulk of emissions in the EU, as well as in North West England.

Let’s take energy, for example. We urgently need a rapid transition to a smart, zero-carbon energy system and halt all future fossil fuel developments. It is also a reality that many communities rely on the jobs provided by the energy sector. The focus in the Green Deal should be on investing in these people, rather than leaving them behind, and give them the opportunity to re-train in green industries or work in environmental restoration schemes – a policy already implemented by the Spanish government in 2018.

By keeping the focus on people, policies such as improving the energy efficiency of building stock can be a strong way of tackling the climate emergency, while at the same time delivering social justice for those who are affected by fuel poverty. Furthermore, improving energy efficiency can help our public institutions make substantial financial savings as well as in the case of hospitals, speed up patient recovery times. These kinds of societal changes will benefit our communities and leave no one behind.

Policies to be implemented at the EU level, are also needed.

The most important of which is the reform of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Firstly, decreasing the number of free allowances in the ETS and secondly, increase the pace of removing emission allowances from the system (which will lead to a higher price on emissions and a faster decrease in emissions).

Secondly, we need to introduce a Border Carbon Adjustment mechanism (in other words, a carbon border tariff) to avoid carbon leakages with companies who manage to avoid climate regulation and paying for their emissions.

And lastly, introducing a kerosene tax. Airlines should pay energy and fuel taxes like everyone else, and we have to tackle airline emissions, a sector where emissions are still growing significantly.

The Green Deal needs to not aim only at ‘hard policies’ that incentivise the rollout of renewable energy systems and increase the cost of emissions. We also need ‘soft policies’ that change the way we consume, live and travel without putting the responsibility of those changes on individuals – particularly the poorest. For example, making it easy for people to choose public transport over their car, expanding cycling infrastructure to make cycling less dangerous and more accessible. In other words, policies should also aim to encourage new, positive types of behaviour.

That is where we will be able to test the real ambition of political leaders.

Going forward as Greens, we should take a demanding but constructive approach. At this early stage, simply criticising the Commission for not being bold or concrete enough will prove to be counterproductive. We need to ensure that a firm but collaborative approach is what will get the key Greens/EFA demands for the European Green Deal on the table.

These are baby steps, but adequate ones if we want to act and save the future of young people and the planet.

 

Cuts, Climate & CSOs

It’s been a busy week in Europe, with so much covered from challenging budget cuts that would impact the essential work on the climate crisis, preventing big business from hijacking research programmes to ensuring the safety of Civil Society Organisations and their staff is upheld in the Middle East. We also stood strong with others against harassment and through a media outlet, we got a leaked preview of the upcoming Green Deal for Europe. The coming week though is likely to be even more action-packed!

Budget cuts will not solve the climate crisis

On Monday this week, the European Council released its first negotiating position on the EU’s long-term budget. The so-called “negotiating box” represents the collective EU Member States’ view on what the EU should spend money on during 2021-2027 period. This opening position will now constitute the basis for negotiations between the Council, the European Parliament and the Commission.

In short, the Member States want to cut back on almost everything that the EU does. For us Greens, this does not make sense. We are facing a climate crisis. Dealing with that crisis requires a considerable transformation of our society and such a transformation does not come cheap. We need significant public investment and focused efforts to help businesses, local councils and individuals achieve climate neutrality. The European Council’s position takes us down the wrong path.

For example, the proposed cutbacks also affect one of the EU programmes that I am working on, the EU’s next research programme, Horizon Europe. The Council wants to decrease the EU’s research budget proposal by almost a third, from £100 billion to £71 billion. This is not what we need. Research and innovation will be key in tackling the climate crisis. As Greens have already secured a commitment that 35 per cent of the EU research budget will be spent on climate-related actions until 2027, these proposed budget cuts mean billions of pounds less to climate-relevant research. And as the UK strives to be a part of the EU research programme even in the case of Brexit, this will also greatly affect the opportunities and funding available to UK researchers.

Scrutinising the influence of big business

I attended an ‘exchange of views’ with Jean-Eric Paquet, head of the European Commission’s research department. He is currently leading the EU’s work in setting the priorities in some parts of the Horizon Europe research programme. Priorities that will guide the projects on which taxpayers’ money will be spent.

In determining these priorities, the Commission is gathering input from different stakeholders. As Greens, our main fight here is to ensure this involves a wide-reaching range of players and not only big corporations. Too often, big business hijacks public programmes to serve their own interests. That’s why I pressured Mr Paquet on how he aims to increase the participation of civil society in the process. EU expenditure must serve the public interest, not only the interests of big business.

Omar Shakir – deported for his human rights work

On Tuesday, I attended an exchange of views with the Human Rights Watch Director for Israel and Palestine, Omar Shakir, who was recently deported from Israel for simply doing his job. His deportation was the result of a landmark Supreme Court ruling, and Mr Shakir spoke at length of the sustained assault on human rights and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Reports of travel bans, criminal charges and arrests on CSO workers are now rife in the region. This Supreme Court ruling, however, amounts to a dangerous escalation, Mr Shakir claims. My intervention was focussed on a similar point, stating that CSOs are a foundation of any true democracy, and should be protected at all costs.

Sadly, Mr Shakir’s situation is symbolic of a globally shrinking space for human rights defenders, that is fuelled in this case, by the Israeli political agenda. This agenda shows no sign of improvement with the prospect of a new government. It continues to actively and freely disregard the human rights of Palestinians as well as, by definition, the peace process. The EU and the international community need to rethink their approach to the issue, while in parallel support all civil society workers on the ground.

Meanwhile this week…

Good

There are training and awareness initiatives that promote transparency and action, which is always a welcome opportunity. On Wednesday afternoon, I finally had the chance to attend a training course on Preventing Psychological and Sexual Harassment at the European Parliament – something the Green group has pushed for in light of the #MeToo movement. It’s a training course aimed solely at MEPs – and before being elected, all candidates were encouraged by the campaign to sign the MeToo pledge to prevent, combat and report sexual harassment and sexism in the European Parliament and beyond, and to support the victims. The website sheds light on the stories of harassment of staff within Parliament. Enough is enough, let’s eliminate harassment of all kinds from our lives.

Bad

What makes it even harder for parties that act with integrity like the Greens, is that the system is so open to manipulation by those with lower standards. An article in DeSmog this week makes clear the cracks that let the bad in.

“The Tories have received millions from the richest of the rich with vested interests in fossil fuels. And – as we today revealed – they’ve also received millions from the aviation industry.

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, the data shows surges in giving around the time of key government decisions on aviation, such as the approval of Heathrow Terminal 5 in 2001 and debates around Heathrow expansion in 2009 and 2018.

“With such huge sums being donated, perhaps it’s no surprise that none of the parties made tackling the industry’s massive emissions a core part of their campaign.”

Where hope lies

The European Green Deal – like the ‘Green New Deal’ being adopted elsewhere, is a roadmap that can get us out of the chaos that the climate crisis threatens. Nothing is perfect, but a Green Deal that addresses the climate across all sectors and includes social as well as environmental justice at its core, is a great start. We do have concerns here though.

This coming week there will be an extraordinary plenary for all MEPs to hear the European Commission’s proposal for the European Green Deal. Unfortunately, it’s looking very unlikely I will be able to attend due to the French public sector strike which includes the rail workers and heavily affects the Eurostar service.

A summary of the draft proposal to be presented was leaked last week, and it appears that although there are few concrete proposals, it’s more of a Commission ‘wish-list’. Two significant areas covered in the leaked document are the Commission’s stated aspiration of how quickly they will begin to reduce carbon emissions and what they will achieve by 2030, and the proposal to enshrine the ambition for climate neutrality by 2050 into law. This “climate law” could have a huge impact depending on what it contains. More on this next week.

Onwards

 

 

Pursuing Fracking in the UK is “STUPIDITY”

Gina Dowding MEP commented on the recent report from the National Audit Office on Fracking for shale gas in England report, saying:

“I think the first thing that the public would be interested in this report from the National Audit Office is what is actually going to happen to energy prices. What is clear is that the NAO has finally called out the cheap gas prices myth and that energy prices are not expected to fall: that’s because the shale gas industry cannot be easily compared to the North American model both because of difficult geology here and how our communities are much more densely populated.

“Aside from the myriad issues surrounding fracking, to even think of progressing with a new fossil fuel industry during a climate emergency, is nothing short of stupidity.”