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10 March 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 1:28pm

What does Brexit mean for the environment? It’s a question that the Leave camp can’t answer

As far as our country and our planet are concerned, it's open and shut: we're stronger in. 

By Lucy Thomas

What has the European Union ever done for us? Except for the cleaner beaches, air and water, lower greenhouse gas emissions and preserving wildlife?  Now three of Britain’s biggest wildlife and conservation charities have thrown down the gauntlet to Leave campaigners asking quite how they could guarantee Britain’s birds, bees and environment would be protected outside the EU.

I expect we’ll be waiting some time, because there is no way that they can. It is only through European cooperation that so many of the environmental protections we have now exist and will be protected in future. Global challenges like climate change need cross border cooperation or they’ll never be overcome.  

The three questions posed by WWF, RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts remind us just how much is at stake if we leave. First, how does being in Europe help Britain take decisive action on nature protection, pollution and air quality?

Inside Europe, the UK benefits from common rules that protect the country’s nature and wildlife, set limits for pollution and waste, and help us reduce our carbon footprint. Leaving the EU would mean an end to our automatic participation in Europe-wide rules that are vital to saving our environment, and could result in the loss of important safeguards for nature in the UK.

As the trio of campaign groups’ report rightly points out, the EU has had a positive effect on environmental standards here in the UK already. Whether is it a reduction in air and water pollution or greenhouse gas, increased use of renewables, transformed waste management, the withdrawal of toxic substances from use and a legal framework to protect the seas, the EU has led the way in making the UK a cleaner and greener country.

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That’s not to say that the UK would be lost on its own: just that, as with our security and our economy, we’re stronger as a member. The same can’t be said for Britain being out on its own.

There are two versions of what that could look like according to the report. The first is that Britain leaves the EU entirely and loses its automatic participation in all EU environmental legislation. The second is that we remain part of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) or the European Economic Area (EEA) in a similar way to Norway or Switzerland. However, as a member of the EFTA or EEA we would still contribute sustainably to the EU budget but have no place at the table to direct future policy.

So no alternative available to us is as beneficial as our full membership of the EU – it’s a lose-lose scenario.

Working with our partners in the EU on the other hand, we can remain a world leader in developing solutions to the great environmental challenges. As the report says, “the environment has become an increasingly important concern for the EU” and that “measures introduced by the EU have been the result of rigorous, detailed negotiations, balancing the interests of all Member States, including the UK.”

One of the strengths of EU legislation is that it works on the principle of a shared and comprehensive effort. That’s meant it has created stable measures that allow for long term planning on the environmental challenges we face.

It “leads the world in environmental standards – setting and law making – for instance on water quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” Leaving the EU would present “UK law-makers with a huge challenge in terms of writing decades of complex environmental laws” in the reports own words. Why would we want to risk that?

The second question posed relates to our role internationally: how would we exercise leadership globally on climate change? For those like me that are proud that Britain is an influential, outward facing nation at the centre of global affairs, this is a particularly important question.

The truth is that the challenges Britain faces – whether climate change, food supply, desertification and deforestation – increasingly know no borders. That means that coordinated action between all countries is needed to effectively take on the challenge of tackling it.

By being in Europe, Britain is best placed to drive international action to this end. From Kyoto to Paris, being in Europe amplifies Britain’s voice in global climate talks and helps us to stand up against big polluting industries in the United States and China. Outside of the EU, Britain’s voice in these global forums would be diminished, and we would find ourselves outside of EU discussions on how Europe can lead on climate change.

Finally, the report asks what our vision is for more environmentally responsible agriculture and fishing in the UK. Britain has worked with the EU to provide important safeguards for our environment, while at the same time boosting British agriculture and providing vital funding for British farmers – a fact the Leave campaigns like to gloss over.

It is through our EU membership that the UK can support British farming while at the same time encouraging sustainable growth and transitioning to green technology when planning the future of UK agriculture.

The EU’s Common Agriculture Policy isn’t perfect: no-one would claim it is. It needs to be reformed but we need to be in the EU to do that. If we leave Europe, farmers across the UK would lose access to vital EU funding, putting their livelihoods at risk.

In the absence of EU funding, our agriculture sector would be competing on an uneven playing field with EU member countries. Of course, those advocating to leave the EU cannot guarantee that current levels of funding would be maintained. Indeed, the Campaign Director of Vote Leave has admitted that jobs in agriculture would be lost if we leave the EU. All that makes it even more unlikely environmental obligations would still be met, especially if the sector was competing again subsidised rivals in the EU.

The evidence in the report it clear: leaving would be damaging to the interests of both the environment and the agriculture sector. Keeping our seat at the top table on the other hand will mean Britain builds on its global leadership on environmental issues; guarantees a secure livelihood for our crucial agricultural sector; and continues to work with Europe driving forward the environmental agenda. The UK’s environmental protection is stronger in Europe. Leaving would put that at risk.

Lucy Thomas is deputy director of Britain Stronger in Europe.

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