How will Thursday’s vote affect environmental policy? The RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, World Wildlife Fund and Friends of the Earth examine the evidence
June 22nd 2016
On Thursday 23rd June, the UK is holding a referendum on its membership of the European Union. Two issues have tended to dominate the debate. For those who want Britain to leave, the main issue is immigration; for those who want Britain to remain, it’s the economy. But how will the outcome affect environmental policy?
Organisations such as the RSPB and Friends of the Earth have been working to ensure that the environment is not forgotten in the debate about EU membership. The RSPB has canvassed views from representatives of the two official campaigns, ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ and ‘Vote Leave,’ asking them to explain how their proposals would help protect the environment. 
Speaking on behalf of the remain campaign, Caroline Lucas MP gave three reasons why staying in the EU would benefit the environment. Firstly, it meant Britain was party to a set of common rules that serve environmental protection and set limits to pollution and waste; the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives and the EU’s Maritime Safety Agency were cited as examples. Secondly, she argued that the EU helps to tackle climate change by setting ambitious plans for reducing energy consumption, limiting carbon emissions, and transitioning to renewable energy sources. Thirdly, she referred to EU’s funding for research on environmental protection: “The EU LIFE programme,” she said, “worth over £600 million, backs 11 UK environment projects in the areas of environment policy, nature and biodiversity. In addition to this, the EU’s research programme is expected to provide £8.3 billion in funding for cutting edge research at our universities, which will help us develop new sustainable technology and further our understanding of our planet and habitat.” She also mentioned EU’s action to regulate pesticides that are known to kill bees, and work on banning the hunting of seals and dolphins.
George Eustice MP, Minister for Farming, Food & the Marine Environment, spoke on behalf of the leave campaign. He said: “It is time to question the lazy assumption that environmental improvement can only occur when democratic government is set aside in favour of a pan-European legal system, and when the public are disempowered… We should not seek to side step the public through technocratic EU law. Instead we should engage the public to secure genuine, politically-led change.” He referred to the Berne Convention and its legally-binding commitments to improve habitats and protect wildlife, which the UK signed up to in the late 1970s. If the UK had stuck with that model, he said, and taken responsibility ourselves for delivering improvements through tailored national legislation, progress would have happened more effectively and perhaps faster. “Instead,” he said, “we abdicated all responsibility to the EU and sat on our hands like infants waiting to be told what to do. It’s time to grow up and take control.”
How do these arguments stack up? The RSPB says EU policy has had both positive and negative consequences for the environment: “Current evidence suggests that the EU has had a positive impact through some of its environment policies, most notably through the Birds and Habitats Directives but also by setting water quality, climate change, air quality and renewable energy targets. However, significant concerns remain about some sectoral policies (such as for agriculture and fisheries) and environmentally harmful subsidies.”
The RSPB highlights two aspects of EU policy to illustrate this point. Firstly, farming policy; and secondly, nature legislation. 
On farming policy, the RSPB says: “Agriculture policy in the EU was historically about driving up food production. As a result trees, hedgerows and wild flowers disappeared from our countryside – squeezed out by bigger fields, ever-bigger farm machinery and an increasing reliance on pesticides. This intensification of agriculture is the number one cause of declines in the UK’s wildlife in recent decades… Changes have reduced some of the harmful impacts, and a small proportion of the EU Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) budget does now go towards supporting nature-friendly farmers and the great work they do. But the EU’s agriculture policy continues to fail farmers and our wildlife, whilst accounting for almost 40% of the EU budget – there’s a long way to go to reach a truly sustainable agriculture policy for the EU.”
On the other hand, the RSPB says the EU’s nature conservation laws “have been a driving force for establishing and strengthening nature conservation measures in the UK and other Member States. These laws provide protection for wildlife, in particular by safeguarding places that are important for them. Over 20,000 square kilometres of land are protected in the UK alone – including the New Forest, Ramsey Island, and the Moray Firth. These laws have been a lifeline for otters, marsh fritillary butterflies and bitterns, among many others.”
To examine these issues in more detail, the RSPB joined forces with the Wildlife Trusts and the World Wildlife Fund in March to commission a report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), an independent research institute.  The report examines the EU’s track record on the environment and produces the evidence which is summarised above. In addition, the report looks at different UK exit scenarios and considers the arrangements that would need to be established to maintain some of the existing environmental protection provided by EU membership.
Two exit scenarios are examined: one is leaving the EU but staying in the European Economic Area or European Free Trade Association; the second is a complete exit and total independence. On these exit scenarios, the report says: “Recent UK government policy has tended to favour deregulation and competitiveness over environmental regulation, so leaving the EU would result (in the immediate term at least) in considerable uncertainty for wildlife, and for business investment in green infrastructure.”
This last point is taken up in a blog post by RSPB Chief Executive Mike Clarke. He says the RSPB is delighted that both campaigns responded positively to the challenge to set out how their respective positions will deliver for nature. “However,” he says, “no one from the ‘Leave’ campaign has yet been able to reassure us that we wouldn’t need to start again from scratch were we to leave the EU. What will happen to nature in the meantime? Recent calls from supporters of ‘Leave’ to scrap the Nature Directives – which have been proven to work so effectively where properly implemented – are of great concern.”
The IEEP report says that “Britain’s membership of the EU has, on balance, delivered benefits for our natural environment that would be hard to replicate if we left,” and this view is echoed by Mike Clarke. He concludes: “In weighing up the current evidence, the uncertainties and the balance of risks, we have concluded that the safer option for nature is for the UK to remain a part of the European Union.”
Friends of the Earth: “If we leave the EU, the impact on our environment will be negative and long term.”
In July 2015, Friends of the Earth produced a policy position paper on the UK’s membership of the EU.  The paper summarises the environmental gains but also points out the problems: “the Common Agriculture Policy, for example, has proved an environmental disaster.” It also points to the potentially damaging effects to the environment of the TTIP negotiations, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership currently under discussion with the EU and the USA as trading partners. The paper calls for the EU to change its priorities, improve existing legislation, and reinvigorate democracy.
Leaving the EU, however, would have a negative impact on the environment. The paper states: “To protect the environment and human health, we need to take action before damage occurs. Yet UK politicians routinely argue against precautionary decision-making… Fortunately, the precautionary principle is enshrined in EU treaties. EU-wide laws also prevent countries gaining a competitive advantage in their industries by setting lower environmental standards. If we leave the EU, the impact on our environment will be negative and long term.”
In a series of blog posts, Friends of the Earth campaigners describe the environmental gains of EU membership in more detail:
- Cleaner Beaches: Campaigner Anna Baum says the UK pumped untreated sewage into the sea until 1998, longer than any other country in Europe. Successful legal action by the European Commission to enforce the EU’s 1976 Bathing Water Directive resulted in improvements to many of the UK’s beaches, but only 60% meet the new ‘Excellent’ standard of the revised 2006 Bathing Water Directive: “If the UK leaves the EU, we will no longer be subject to the Bathing Water Directive. Without external EU pressure it seems likely that standards will slip.”
- Protecting Bees from Harmful Pesticides: In 2013 a majority of EU member states voted to restrict the use of three pesticides known to be harmful to bees, following a report by scientists across the EU into the reasons for declining bee populations, with 33 species considered to be under threat of extinction. Sam Lowe says: “If we weren’t in the EU, these dangerous pesticides would never have been restricted in the UK. The UK vigorously opposed the introduction of the restrictions despite the scientific evidence.”
- Protecting Biodiversity and Natural Habitats: The EU is currently reviewing its Nature Directives and is under pressure to relax them, on the grounds that they hamper development and economic growth, and impose costs and regulatory ‘red tape’ on business. Sam Lowe says the UK has a poor track record of putting nature first: “The farming minister and prominent leave campaigner, George Eustice, told The Guardian that the birds and habitats directives would go if we vote to leave the EU, describing them as ‘spirit crushing’.” 
- Rethinking Waste: The Circular Economy: EU Directives such as the Landfill Directive and the Waste Framework Directive have set targets for recycling and the amount of waste going to landfill sites. “All of this has led to a cultural shift in favour of recycling,” says Henry Chown, with the UK close to meeting the target of recycling 50% of household waste by 2020. However: “If we left the EU, the first thing we’d miss out on would be the Circular Economy Package.”
- Tackling Climate Change: Reducing carbon emissions and the burning of fossil fuels will help to tackle climate change. In 2009, the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive set a European-wide target of achieving 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. It also set national targets and requested member states to produce action plans setting out how they would meet their obligations. Sam Lowe says: “This has had a huge impact on the UK. It has been largely responsible for the rapid growth in renewable electricity that we have seen in the last five years.” However: “The UK has been one of the fiercest critics of renewable energy targets. As a result, the next phase of the Renewable Energy Directive looks to be far weaker than what is needed… Recent government attacks on solar and onshore wind suggest an uncertain outlook for UK renewables post-Brexit.”
- Improving Air Quality: Sam Lowe says: “EU action on pollution has led to big improvements in the quality of our air but much more needs to be done.” For example, the UK has broken EU safety limits for nitrogen dioxide emissions for a number of years, which led environmental law firm Client Earth to take the UK Government to court. This resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that the government must take “immediate action” to meet EU safety standards. Given the UK’s track record, it seems highly likely that leaving the EU would lead to a lowering of safety standards.
- Protection from Harmful Chemicals: Dr Michael Warhurst is an Executive Director of CHEM Trust, a UK charity that aims to prevent chemical products from causing long-term damage to the environment and human health by ensuring that safer alternatives are used instead of more harmful ones. Writing for Friends of the Earth, he says EU chemical regulations in the form of REACH represents the world’s leading chemicals regulatory system. The system improves our knowledge of chemical hazards, helps companies use chemicals more safely, and restricts the use of some of the worst chemicals. “The UK has not been at the forefront of trying to ensure tight controls over chemicals (unlike Sweden or Denmark),” he says, “so we consider it unlikely that a UK outside the EU would put in place measures comparable to those in the EU.”
- Sustainable Fishing: Finally, in a guest post, Griffin Carpenter and Bryce Stewart, two academics working in environmental economics and maritime ecosystem management, unravel some of the misconceptions surrounding the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy. A recent analysis of 118 years of statistics revealed that the vast majority of the decline in fish stocks occurred prior to the implementation of the Common Fisheries Policy in 1983: “In fact, the policy is now overall helping, not harming, the country’s fisheries. Since EU policy was reformed in 2002, the health of many fish stocks has improved. By 2011 the majority of assessed fisheries were considered to be sustainably fished… The Water Framework Directive and Marine Strategy Framework Directive commit EU members to restore and protect the environment. It is therefore unclear why the UK would want to abandon ship at this point.”
Photo: Cors Caron and the Afon Teifi near Tregaron, Ceredigion © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The photo shows the River Teifi “flowing through the extensive raised bog of Cors Caron at its southern end, seen from the old Teifi bridge at Pont Einon. Cors Caron is a raised bog system covering more than 325 hectares. It is 6 kilometres in length and provides a habitat for a wide range of wildlife and plants. The bog itself was formed 12,000 years ago when the last of the Ice Age glaciers melted away. A large shallow lake was left, which very gradually filled with sediments and vegetation, forming peat and later, acid peat. In 1955, Cors Caron was declared a National Nature Reserve in order to preserve this increasingly scarce land form. In 1993, Cors Caron was placed on a list of wetland sites of international importance under the terms of the Ramsar Convention.”
The Afon Teifi / River Teifi is listed as a Natura 2000 site, protected under the EU Habitats Directive since 1998. The EU data says the site covers a total of 715 hectares and protects 8 species of the Nature Directives and 6 habitat types of the Habitats Directive. Natural Resources Wales says: “Wales has 20 Special Protection Areas for vulnerable birds and 92 Special Areas of Conservation for other rare species and threatened natural habitats. Together they are known as Natura 2000, and along with areas across Europe, they form an unparalleled network of international importance for nature conservation. Wales’ Natura 2000 network covers more than 700,000 hectares (8.5% of Welsh land area and 35% of territorial waters).” Management of these sites was helped by funding from the EU’s LIFE Programme.
 The EU, the environment and potential consequences of a UK departure from the Union, Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP). Available as a PDF download from the IEEP website. The report is summarised in ‘The EU & Our Environment: What UK membership means for the environment, and potential consequences of a UK departure from the Union’ (a joint publication from the RSPB, WWF and The Wildlife Trusts, 1 June 2016). Available as a PDF download from the RSPB website.
 ‘Our Position Paper on EU Membership,’ Friends of the Earth, July 2015. Available as a PDF download from the Friends of the Earth website.
 ‘Brexit would free UK from ‘spirit-crushing’ green directives, says minister’, Arthur Neslen in The Guardian.