The UK will soon make a momentous, era-defining decision. Will a June 23 referendum vote in the UK – itself a union of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – prompt this nation of 64 million people to withdraw from the 28-nation European Union (EU) after 40 years of membership?
Or will voters reject calls from Brexit campaigners and agree with the "remain" camp that their best interests lie in sharing decisions, responsibilities and resources with their European partners?
By June 13 opinion polls showed a shift in favour of leaving the EU, although remain campaigners say they are confident that undecided voters will stick with the status quo.
The referendum, which was prompted by UK Prime Minister David Cameron to contain anti-EU elements in his Conservative Party and placate increasingly Eurosceptic voters, will have a fundamental impact on almost every area of policy. The economy, trade, labour rights, law, immigration, and national security have all dominated the increasingly shrill debate about the benefits of remaining in the EU.
Although the environment hasn’t been centre stage in the daily propaganda war waged by the respective camps, the decision could have a huge impact on the UK’s green policies, and also on energy and climate policy in the EU, the world’s largest political and economic bloc with a combined population of 500 million people.
Many of the UK’s environmental laws were made after the UK voted in a 1975 referendum to stay in what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). Many of these laws, such as the cleanliness of beaches, were mandated by legally-binding standards drawn up in Brussels, where most of the EU’s decisions are agreed.
“Before EU membership, the chances were high that you were swimming in raw sewage and that was making people ill. But the EU’s system of Blue Flag beaches raised standards,” said Tony Juniper, a former head of Friends of the Earth, government adviser, and a supporter of the UK staying in the EU.
“About 85% of our environmental laws come from Brussels. In the event of Brexit, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that those who advocate our departure will target these laws as ‘red tape’ and something that will get in the way of competitiveness and creating jobs,” Juniper said at a panel discussion last month organised by Environmentalists for Europe.
He added: “European standards drive innovation and investment (in greener products) Take all that away and we go backwards very quickly. It will be a problem for jobs and a problem for human health, particularly through poor air quality.”
Mary Creagh, a Member of Parliament with the opposition Labour Party, and a chair of a parliamentary report published in April on the environmental benefits of EU membership, said the UK would lose its power to make decisions on the environment if it left the EU.
“If we left, UK businesses would still have to comply with EU environmental standards, just as Norway does, to access the Single Market. But we wouldn’t have any say in how those laws are made…Inside the EU we can influence and improve EU environmental law,” she said in a recent article, pointing to a recent ruling in the European Court of Justice to force the UK government to take stronger action on air pollution.
The list of environmental policies that European institutions took up increased hugely in the 1980s and 1990s, with Brussels mandating standards on air quality, wildlife protection, marine, fisheries, farming quotas, chemicals, waste and packaging, recycling and, most fundamentally for many environmentalists, key strands of climate and energy policy.
But, on the flipside, the list of complaints from many environmentalists about the EU’s muddled decision making and pandering to national self-interest and powerful industry lobbies is a long one.
Germany secured major concessions for its carmakers to avoid early action on fuel economy and tailpipe emissions standards, and the EU’s encouragement of diesel engines (which emit less carbon than petrol engines but are worse in terms of PM2.5 pollution) is viewed as a particularly poor piece of EU policy that has contributed to high levels of harmful smog.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, has also had to grapple with the legacy of overgenerous allocations to industrial companies in its flawed emissions trading scheme, although renewables and energy efficiency directives (laws) are credited with success in prompting a switch from coal.
Despite these policy failings, decisions made in Brussels, are, in the main, judged to be positive for the environment.
The EU’s directives on cutting harmful particulates from coal-fired power plants are a particularly obvious example of where laws agreed by member states have delivered a clear and positive environmental outcome: the early retirement of fossil fuelled power plants has been good for the air, and has curbed a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Last month, for the first time since the industrial revolution, on some days coal-fired power was entirely absent from the UK's power generation mix, with wind power taking up much of the slack.
A UK outside the EU would be free to scrap these regulations or choose not to enforce them, but in practice they are unlikely to be scrapped regardless of the outcome of the June 23 referendum as many older coal-fired power plants are being decommissioned.
Ed Davey, who was the UK’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change from 2010 to 2015 with the centre-left Liberal Democrats in a coalition government with the Conservatives, said the UK had played a major role in making EU climate policy ambitious in terms of targets. This was in the face of opposition from coal-reliant member states such as Poland, he added, an example of how an EU withdrawal would weaken policy in other member states.
Climate and energy
A policy paper published last month by Chatham House, a London-based international affairs institute, warns that EU withdrawal could affect the balance of energy policy among the remaining member states.
“In its absence, the centre of gravity for EU energy policy might shift away from market mechanisms and result in weaker collective action on greenhouse gas reduction targets,” it said.
E3G, a climate and energy consultancy, said membership of the EU offers substantial benefits on energy and climate change that a leave vote would require the UK to forego, "making the transition to a low carbon economy more expensive and less secure".
Caroline Lucas, an MP with the Green Party, said "June 23 is a climate referendum," adding that "leaving the EU could wreck our chances of playing a part in the fight against this existential threat."
If the UK was to leave, countries that are traditionally recalcitrant on climate measures might be able to increase their influence in EU policymaking, weakening climate action not only in Europe but across the world, warned Ed Davey.
In addition, Brexit would also embolden domestic climate sceptics and friends of the fossil fuel industry at home. “The UK Climate Change Act might not be so secure (in event of a vote to leave),” Davey told environmentalists at a panel discussion in London last month.
The UK Climate Change Act, which took effect in 2008, makes it the duty of the Secretary of State (chief minister in a UK government department) to ensure that the net UK carbon account for all six main greenhouse gases for the year 2050 is at least 80% lower than the 1990 baseline. These targets require regular reviews of the country’s climate and energy policy.
June 23 is a climate referendum. Leaving the EU could wreck our chances of playing a part in the fight against this existential threat
—— Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP
The act was the first piece of legislation in an EU member state to bind a government to deep carbon reduction targets, but is loathed by many Brexiteers, who also tend to resent policies aimed at promoting renewable energy, and onshore wind turbines in particular.
One high profile opponent of the UK’s climate policy, and a supporter of the "Leave" campaign, Peter Lilley, rejects the notion that the UK needs to be a member of the EU to have a cleaner environment.
Lilley, a former minister in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the late 1980s, and a member of the UK parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee, wrote a dissenting view to the committee’s April report in which he argued that the UK could easily negotiate environmental legislation at an intergovernmental level (and through bilateral agreements) rather than through the EU.
He further contends that the UK would have a greater say on some international environmental bodies by having its own seat, rather than being represented by the EU.
But it’s not just on the right of politics where there is scepticism that EU membership benefits the UK’s environment.
Some environmentalists and left-wing commentators warn that Brussels has created major environmental damage through its farming policies that have incentivised the use of intensive, wasteful methods of agriculture, particularly for large producers who have destroyed rural habitats and damaged soil.
In addition, the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has long been a source of frustration among conservationists by pandering to national self-interest of member states with large fishing fleets, such as Spain, leading to overfishing and wasteful practices. But some environmentalists and researchers now say reforms to the CFP are improving fish stocks in European waters.
Meanwhile, critics claim that the EU’s trade policies could do major harm to the environment in member states.
Trade deal dread
Secretive negotiations on a proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US may give much stronger legal powers to companies to sue governments if policies cause a loss in profits, say some.
Nobel prize-winning economics professor Joseph Stiglitz said earlier this year that TTIP would mean almost every time the UK passed a regulation to limit the health impact of toxins such as asbestos or to tackle climate change “you would be sued” by corporations.
Yet many on the green-left conclude that a vote to stay in the EU is the best to ensure that the UK sticks to policies credited with improving the health and well-being of millions of the country’s citizens, and the environment, in one of the bloc’s most densely populated countries.
An EU without the UK, they add, will be a more environmentally uncertain place.