Every week I receive an email bulletin called Science for Environment Policy, sent out by the Directorate-General for Environment, which is the European Commission department that sets and monitors European Union policies relating to the environment, for example pollution levels, conservation of biodiversity, etc. Anyone can subscribe to these bulletins and they provide useful, lay-person summaries of recent research findings that have a direct or indirect bearing on how we manage and protect Europe’s environment.
A scan through the latest few bulletins reveals article titles such as:
- Atlantic beaches of Europe reshaped in stormy winter of 2013–2014
- Water management: five policy conditions to help overcome the challenges of an uncertain future
- Climate change threatens early-flowering plants due to lack of snow
- Black carbon emissions of individual cars measured under real conditions
- Are endocrine disrupting chemicals responsible for downward trends in male fertility?
- Environmental performance of construction and demolition waste management
- Golden jackal should not be treated as an alien species in Europe
- Environmental taxation in the right place can increase business productivity
This set of topics is fairly typical, and demonstrates the complexity and breadth of the environmental issues facing the European Union. All of these issues, however, share one feature: they do not respect political boundaries and are cross-border in scope. Species, rivers, air masses, sea currents, economic resources, waste products: all of them can (and do) move through the different countries of Europe and beyond.
What this means is that the policies, laws and regulations that govern the behaviour of individuals and organisations towards the environment, and ultimately protect it, must also be cross-border in scope. That’s where the European Union comes in, because it is largely EU directives that currently protect our environment. Some examples of these directives, and some of their achievements, include:
- Birds Directive which has helped to coordinate action plans for endangered resident and migratory birds.
- Industrial Emissions Directive that determines what large industries can and cannot release into the environment, and has had a significant effect on improving the quality of Europe’s air.
- Habitats Directive that relates to the conservation of natural habitats and the fauna and flora they contain, including setting up the Natura 2000 network that currently covers more that 18% of the EU’s land area and almost 6% of its marine territory, making it the world’s largest coordinated network of protected areas.
- Water Framework Directive that determines action in the area of water policy.
- Waste Framework Directive likewise determines action in the area of wastes policy and which, together with the Landfill Directive and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, has been responsible for significantly reducing the amount of waste going into landfill, increased the amount being recycled, and placed pressure on manufacturers to take responsibility for packaging and end-of-life goods and materials.
There are many others, and you can find a list here. It’s worth pointing out that these directives were not “imposed” on the UK by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels: the UK took an active role in their development and drafting. In fact Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley Johnson, was one of the original authors of the Habitats Directive and is a prominent advocate of remaining in the EU.
Of course, no one is arguing that these directives are the only mechanism for protecting the environment, there are local regulations too, plus the work of NGOs such as the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts. Nor am I arguing that they have been wholly effective: there’s still a long way to go in many of these areas. But they have had a demonstrably positive impact on the quality and protection of the UK’s environment that could be halted, or even reversed, if the UK was to leave the EU.
This last point is an important one to make and it’s not an example of the fear-mongering that has marked the EU Referendum debate on both sides. Here is how I see it: we cannot trust the UK government (whatever its political flavour) to safeguard our environment.
This is because, despite the best efforts of genuinely committed and environmentally savvy politicians, the political parties to which they belong are too focused on short-term goals of winning the next election to really consider the 20, 50, or 100 year perspectives that are required for environmental legislation. This inevitably means that the environment is low on the list of priorities for most ministers, and environmental policy is subject to undue influence by special interest groups. For example look at how easily Defra was persuaded to allow exceptions to the EU moratorium on neonicotinoid pesticides. Likewise the HS2 project which ministers seem determined to keep going despite serious concerns about the environmental impact of the project (see my post “Ordinary by Choice“).
When considering whether or not to vote to remain in the EU, most people (understandably) are focused on the social and economic arguments: the impacts on jobs, standards of living, resources for health, etc. But in part the environmental argument is a social and economic argument, because the natural environment underpins many jobs, our standards of living (who doesn’t want to live near unpolluted green space that is protected for future generations?), and plays an important part in the nation’s health and wellbeing. The provision of these “ecosystem services” were clearly spelled out last year in Tony Juniper’s book What Nature Does for Britain, which I reviewed on this blog.
I’m not arguing that everything in the European Union is perfect, or even that the environment of the UK and the rest of the EU is as good as it ought to be, or could be. But for every statistic about declining species and poor environments, it’s possible to quote figures for the success of other species and improvements in quality. For example our major rivers such as the Thames, Tees, Mersey and Avon are now swimming with fish where once they were swimming with excrement, as I’ve previously discussed in relation to the River Wear. Our membership of the European Union is, at least in part, responsible for these positive trends and I hope that they continue. Please consider this when you’re deciding how to vote on 23rd June.
Postscript: much of what I’ve discussed above is being widely talked about amongst environmentalists, and I don’t know of any major environmental organisation that is in favour of the UK leaving the EU. In fact a large number have publicly come out in favour of staying, including:
Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management
The Wildlife Trusts
The RSPB and WWF-UK, who have produced a joint statement.
Friends of the Earth
There is also a group called Environmentalists For Europe
So don’t just take my word for it.