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The environmental impact of Brexit

As the UK prepares to go to the polls over its membership of the EU, we examine what difference the battle for Britain will really make to the battle for a cleaner Europe

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There's a very good reason why Sustain Europe is refusing to speculate on the economic impacts of the UK leaving the European Union.

 

That's because whenever media and industry experts have offered up their predictions on the resulting market conditions after a country has seceded from larger entity (the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia being just two examples which come to mind), they have consistently failed to get it right.

 

Speculation is fine. But that's all it is. And the truth of the matter is that nobody knows what is going to happen economically should Britain decide to leave the EU. The political impact of an EU without Britain is similarly an unknown. All the various scenarios and impact assessments in the world will not change that fact.

 

So when people ask us the question, "what will Britain leaving the EU mean for markets?" our best answer might be, "your guess is as good as ours."

 

So what then of the question if Britain should remain in the European Union or not? In the end, that is a question only for the British people. They'll surely be answering it for their own reasons, and ultimately not for the many prescribed reasons that various outlets are bombarding us with. When voters go to polls on June the 23rd, it is ultimately a personal decision of each and every individual as to whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union. Like it or not, the results of the referendum must be respected, and in order to respect the opinion of others, we shouldn't really be offering them our opinion on what they should or shouldn't be doing.

 

From the Sustain Europe view of the continent, it simply doesn't matter if you are inside the EU or not. We pay equal attention to the entire European continent. Our vision is of a prosperous and sustainable European continent: regardless of political ideology or culture. So even though we cannot predict what economical impact a possible EU exit will have on the United Kingdom, are we able to make more accurate predictions regarding what Brexit might mean for the environment?

 

Perhaps we can. The UK economy has been around for a much longer time than the environmental sector. There are far fewer variables and factors to take into account when examining what an EU exit might mean for the environment. But to begin with it should be noted that during the 1970s and 1980s, European states and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) denounced the UK as the "Dirty Man of Europe", due its apatheism towards European efforts to formulate a common European environmental policy. It was the EU which used it's political framework to essentially force the UK to go clean and green. Once the UK began to fulfil its environmental commitments, it soon became apparent that the nation was not only able to meet targets, but in many instances exceed them. The UK then went on to emerge as an international leader in climate change policy after adopting the Climate Change Act in 2008.

 

So regardless of how you feel about the EU, there can be no question that without the multi-national organisation's role in changing the UK's climate policy, the UK would simply have never been able to discover its penchant for shaping environmental law. Neither would the UK have been able to curb so much of the environmental damage which was taking place before EU intervention.

 

That had been largely achieved because the powers that used to rest with politicians and local officials had been taken away so that EU environmental laws could be complied with. Before this, the politicians and officials were dragging their feet at every turn. The UK simply did not care about the environment a great deal, as anybody who remembers Britain's beaches in the 1970's can attest.

 

Prior to the EU's 1976 Bathing Water Directive, untreated sewage was being pumped straight into the sea. EU legislation had effectively brought a new era of cleanliness to the UK's seas and beaches. Today nearly 600 UK beaches meet clean water standards, as opposed to the pre-Directive era when not even a single beach could have been classified as clean. Bearing this in mind, the big question is if the UK is no longer bound by the Directive, will it decide to lower, raise or maintain current environmental requirements?

 

The same question can be asked about the restriction of the use of 3 neonicotinoids, otherwise known as harmful pesticides. These neonicotinoids were shown in a study to harm honey bees and as a result of an EU majority vote in 2013, these dangerous pesticides are no longer available in the EU and the UK, which is helping to keep British bees safe and healthy. When you consider that bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat and are one of the most important creatures to the functioning of the terrestrial ecosystem, it begins to make a whole lot of sense why the EU is so keen on protecting them.

 

The EU's Nature Directives, the Habitats and Birds Directives, and the creation of the Natura 2000 network of protected areas have directly resulted in the UK losing only 1% of its protected sites every year, in contrast to the 15% which was being lost annually before the Directives. Which parts of these Directives would the UK choose to retain in the event of a Brexit?

 

How will air quality fare? Air pollution has been one of European Union's main environmental policy concerns since the late 1970s. Every EU member state has got the EU to thank for the substantial decline in air pollutants over the past few decades. Having said that, the UK is still breaching EU limits for nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and was taken to the European Court of Justice before the UK's Supreme Court ordered a new air quality plan which would meet EU NO2 limits. If Britain is outside of the European Union, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) may no longer be expected to update a policy which is only there in the first place because of the EU.

 

There'd be other worse things for the UK to focus on, that's for sure. Air pollution has rapidly become a burden to the UK's National Health Service (NHS) and is estimated to cost them £20 Billion (€25 Billion) per year. Air pollution now ranks as the world's fourth leading cause of death and is set to become the number one environmental cause of premature death in urban areas in the coming years. Air pollution is literally the silent killer, as the following infographic demonstrates, and transboundary pollution requires transboundary action:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There's no saying which way Britain will go with regards to air quality should they leave the EU. What is pretty certain though is that as part of the EU, the air quality targets are helping Europe to address what is a very serious health and environmental risk. The targets are only set to become more stringent over time and therefore better for everybody. Air pollution needs us all to work together and the EU is proving to be on the most effective path so far.

 

Our interaction with the planet also requires this type of close cooperation. For many years the EU has worked with the UK to ensure environmentally responsible agriculture and fishing in the UK. Through the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy, the EU also provides vital funding for British farmers. Many livelihoods would most certainly be at risk should their EU subsidy streams cease, and that could spell bad news for sustainability in the UK's agriculture industry. After all, how easy will it be to uphold environmentally responsible agricultural and fishing practices in the UK if farmers and fishermen are struggling to make ends meet? Will they really feel like prioritising environmental practices over putting dinner on their children's plates if push came to shove?

 

These are points which are seldom raised in discussions, and whilst the consequences might not be immediately apparent, they do exist nonetheless. Although the National Farmers' Union (NSU) have gone on record to say that many British farms will not be viable without EU support. Similarly, more detailed conversations need to take place over the fate of all the research and development which is taking place under the auspices of the EU. Recent surveys have demonstrated that the vast majority of some of the brightest minds in the UK's science, engineering and technology communities believe that an EU-exit will set Britain back many years and will hamper much of the good work which has already been done and is already in progress.

 

In was a point which Sarah Main, a director at Case (the Campaign for Science and Engineering), put forward very well recently when she said: “The main benefits are on one hand the funding streams coming directly from the EU for research, but also quite significantly the access to the collaborative network, facilities, equipment and expertise that they thought was provided by the membership in the EU. In particular, they value the wider research community, in which they can participate actively through collaboration and sharing of skills and expertise.”

 

The recent COP21 Agreement placed emphasis on the notion that the real solution to climate change would require wide scale collaboration and sharing of best practices. Whilst Britain leaving the EU will not necessarily mean that Britain will stop collaborating with international partners, there must be careful consideration given to where many of these valuable environmentally-focused EU projects will end up should Britain exit.

 

Renewable energy is also a sector which is heavily reliant on EU member state integration. Even the recent House of Commons Library briefing paper entitled, "Exiting the EU: impact in key UK policy areas" conceded that the driver for the focus on renewables in the UK has been EU targets.

 

How much would change if those targets disappeared as a result of Brexit is something which Sustain Europe is most certain about. Anybody who knows about the UK renewable energy industry will know that the current UK government have imposed policies which have let down the UK's burgeoning renewables sector and hampered its rapid growth.

 

The most recent example would be the slashing of the solar PV Feed-in Tariff in 2015. When the government launched a consultation on a review of the solar subsidy scheme in the UK, there were over 55,000 individual consultation responses and over 180,000 responses from the British public. The overwhelming majority of people believed that the government should not cut their support for solar PV.

 

But the government did not listen and went ahead with the cuts anyway. Similar subsidy cuts have been made right the way through the renewable energy industry, whilst fossil fuel subsidies have increased. So when Sustain Europe goes on record to say that Britain leaving the EU will be the single most catastrophic thing to happen to the UK's renewable energy industry; we really do believe it.

 

Having said that, let's put things into perspective for a moment and look at the bigger picture. Renewable energy is only one item on the list and not necessarily every aspect of sustainability is destined to share its fate. You have to give the UK government the benefit of the doubt. It is impossible to predict exactly how the government will react in other areas of environmental policy in the event of the UK leaving the EU, and it's important not to jump to any conclusions. They'll be faced with a huge challenge and the unenviable task of invoking Article 50, let's not forget. No member state has ever left the EU before and so it is very difficult to predict much about the process other than the fact it will be a bureaucratic nightmare to deal with. So many questions will need answering. How long will the current EU laws remain in place in the UK? Will the EU withdraw from the EU entirely or will it apply for EEA membership or some other type of membership? With so many EU environmental laws not being covered by EEA membership, what are the chances that the UK will agree to honour them all?

 

It seems that too many people are currently focusing on the question of "should the UK remain in the EU?" and that's what's making the whole situation much more difficult to assess. Perhaps if we were to ask, "who wants Britain to remain in the EU and why?" then we can all have some good old fashioned debate about some really important subjects, such as climate change, for instance, whilst simultaneously avoiding the economical scaremongering tactics employed by the media and certain UK parliamentary figures. The most important challenge facing the planet today is not our economy, but climate change, and sooner or later even they are going to have to acknowledge it as our number one priority. We just hope that time comes sooner, rather than later.

 

So if you were to ask us if we want Britain to remain in the EU, our answer is simple: we want to protect the quality of the UK's environment just as much as the rest of Europe's. And the EU is just as much an environmental union as it is a political, cultural or economical union. There is certainly enough evidence to bring this statement beyond the realm of conjecture and speculation, and for us that's good enough.

 

For climate change does not recognise national or EU borders, and any solution to the wide range of problems it creates needs to exceed those borders. There are simply no two ways about it: governments must work together to formulate effective contemporary policies, and the EU has shown itself thus far to be the best way of facilitating such practice.

 

So in conclusion, yes, we most certainly do want the UK to stay in the European Union.

 

And we hope that when the UK public goes to vote on the 23rd of June, they will feel the same way too.

 

 

 

 

 

If you wish to find out more about Brexit and the results of the elections, then please subscribe to Sustain Europe.

 

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