Below we examine trade in Scotland with Our Common Home.
Trade is perhaps the most controversial part of building any Green New Deal. We have been trained to believe that the only goal of trade is to be able to buy more and more at lower and lower prices. Free trade agreements pay little or no attention to the environmental harm that is done during the production, transportation and disposal of goods – and they are legally binding so it is difficult for a country to say ‘no, this product is incredibly harmful to our planet and so we want to discourage its use’.
And yet trade accounts for a large part of our environmental footprint. If we are to be a responsible nation and play our part in averting environmental crises we can’t turn a blind eye to the damage caused by our decisions, just because that harm happens somewhere else. We all share one planet. If the goods we buy in the shops are made while pouring toxic effluent into the sea, we have poisoned our sea too. If we buy goods manufactured using energy from coal-fired power stations, we are poisoning our own atmosphere. If the food we buy is grown by draining the water resources in other countries, those regions will no longer be able to support production and we will simply push the problems into another region of the world – until there is nowhere left to ruin.
Various free trade laws are very difficult to reconcile with a serious desire to tackle climate change and the other environmental crises we face. Competition and procurement laws mean that we’re expected to allow the import (and export) of goods based purely on the price that the corporation selling them chooses. If we wanted to favour other versions of the product which are made with local and organic materials and which were not transported over long distances (emitting carbon) we could face legal action. If a country wanted to invest in its economy to help that economy quickly transition to being low carbon and zero waste it could fall foul of state aid laws. And if a country joins a common agricultural or fisheries policy then its agriculture will be driven by the subsidy regime which almost always favours industrial farming.
Those who argue that free trade agreements are essential suggest that the solution to this is to renegotiate those deals multilaterally – but there is absolutely no evidence that this will happen any time in the foreseeable future. There is even less sign of global manufacturers reforming how they make things. The only other response has been to throw our arms in the air and say ‘what can we do’?
But there are things that we can do. We should support shorter supply chains, which simply means that goods and materials have travelled much shorter distances by the time they reach consumers. That means we should support ‘import substitution’ – all nations should produce more of what they consume domestically and rely less on imports. This does not mean nations cutting themselves off from the world or its markets; it is very unlikely that any country is going to become self-sufficient in advanced technology like mobile phones, televisions and computers. These will continue to be traded internationally. But there is just no sense (economically, socially or environmentally) for a country like Scotland to be importing products we can produce for ourselves – as a nation rich in forestry potential, why would we import bulky and heavy wood-based construction products from Eastern Europe or the other side of the Atlantic?
Scottish exporters need access to international markets so some kind of trade deal with major partners is needed, but the first thing that we have to do is open a proper debate about what those trade arrangements should be. The Common Home Plan is deliberately a statement of what needs to be done rather than a case for what constitutional and international arrangements are required to do it – that is for individuals to argue according to their preferences. To have export access but still be able to do everything in the Common Home Plan Scotland would need to be an independent country with access to the European Single Market but outside the European Customs Union and the Common Agriculture and Fisheries Policies. This would open up a whole range of ways we could influence trade policies. Others will disagree with this approach, but should explain their own positions on trade and the environmental crises.
However, even within free trade agreements there are things we can do. An externality tax (often called a Carbon Tax but perhaps best implemented as a environmental Sales Tax to replace VAT on goods) would be related to how far a product has travelled, emitting carbon on its way. Things which have travelled shorter distances would therefore be more competitive to buy. Price controls can also be used, such as the minimum pricing for alcohol already introduced in Scotland, but rather than pricing to reflect the harm to health it would reflect harm to the environment. A minimum price for any non-compostable single use item would greatly discourage throw-away plastic and setting minimum prices for some foods would help 9. favour organic options. Producer Responsibility would discourage importers who are not willing to design better products. And public procurement (all the money government and its agencies spend on goods and services) can be used to prioritise buying the right kinds of goods and services.
All of these steps would be likely to increase prices in the shops, but almost all of the extra costs would be new public income. It is essential that people on lower incomes do not suffer (though as the Common Home Plan progresses there will be fewer and fewer people on lower incomes) and that these steps have public support. So this new income should be recycled back to citizens through initiatives such as a Universal Basic Income (where everyone gets a guaranteed extra monthly payment) or a Food Budget (a similar initiative, but the money can only be spent on food).
Finally, Scotland should also take responsibility for the impact of what it exports. This is much easier, because by following the Common Home Plan what Scotland exports will, from day one, be designed to have a beneficial relationship with the planet. In fact in a number of industry areas the pioneering role Scotland would play in implementing the world’s first Green New Deal would open up entirely new high-quality export options (such as in advanced wood-based materials). In fact, Scotland might well wish to market its national brand as a virtual ‘kitemark’ of excellence in environmental performance.
Achieving valuable exports is crucial to Scotland’s international role, because the weight Scotland would carry in any future international trade discussions would relate closely to how much the rest of the world needs what Scotland is exporting. Put simply, nations which export things other nations need have much more influence. For Scotland there is a really big opportunity here – hydrogen. The world will need more and more hydrogen in the
future to meet transport and energy needs, and with our significant renewable energy surplus, Scotland can meet this demand. No other nation has yet started to establish itself as a leading player in this industry, so we need to take this opportunity and act now. Since we can meet most of our own energy demand with onshore wind, the rest of our offshore wind potential and all of our marine energy potential could power a hydrogen industry, with at-sea electrolysis plants filling hydrogen tankers which would then export hydrogen to Europe and beyond.