Environment: the EU, the UK and the world

By Emma Thomson

The EU referendum is everywhere we look, but one large part of the UK’s future has barely been brought into question during the debate: the environment.

Historically, the EU has had a prominent impact on environmental policy within the UK, rapidly improving responses to environmental issues – particularly air and water quality, with measures that have impacted our daily lives without us realising it. This may be attributed, in part, to the UK needing to meet pre-defined environmental standards before being allowed to join the EU. Such changes happen over a very brief period of time; a time which many think would have been longer without the involvement of the EU.

However there is an argument, made by Mr Lilley in the Environmental Audit Committee, that before being a member of the European Union, the UK played a considerable role in environmental protection, and that the EU has restricted potential developments in the UK’s environment regime. This ranges from restricting representation in various international panels and organizations, including ICCAT (regarding fisheries), to excluding more nationally focused issues from the agenda. One example highlighted by Lilley is that of river flooding, an issue which increasingly impacts the lives of more and more of the population. As this is happening more frequently than before; the issue is high up on the UK’s environmental agenda – so perhaps without EU involvement the UK will be better equipped to deal with the impacts of increased flooding due to not having to help fund other EU initiatives.

A similar anti-EU stance was taken by the farming minister, George Eustice, who stated that the EU’s involvement in UK environmental policies was actually doing more harm than good in some cases. This is due to the EU choosing to impose generalised policies across the whole of Europe, which Eustice claims has limited potential for environmental management development. If the UK remains in the EU this may continue to be an issue, due to the lack of flexibility and specificity of the pan-European policies. By voting to leave the EU the possibilities for environmental management innovation may open up.

This being said, the EU also provides large amounts of funding to the UK for various environmental causes. Renewable energy infrastructure has particularly benefited from the EU’s financial support. For instance, the Greater London Authority’s initiative to reduce energy usage and carbon dioxide emissions by refitting and adapting homes across London is heavily reliant on EU funding – if we leave the EU will such schemes still be available? How will the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions targets (that were agreed at COP21) be affected? These questions are vitally important, and the impact of the EU referendum on them must be considered.

Climate change is the biggest environmental issue facing the UK in the foreseeable future, so perhaps this needs to be a key focus of the EU referendum. The EU has allowed the UK to be at the forefront of climate change negotiations, something hugely prevalent throughout COP21, where the UK was able to play a leading role in the design of policies that have the capacity to change the future of the world, not just the UK. Leaving the EU out, this small island would have limited international power to deal with global environmental problems. Would this mean that we would have to oblige environmental targets made completely on someone else’s terms? In addition, a reduction in the funding for climate change mitigation initiatives has the capacity to severely limit the UK’s climate change prevention strategy, something which is becoming increasingly important as carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise, along with the sea level. It is clear that within this referendum so much more is at risk than just our economic and political standing.

The environmental side to the referendum debate is as complex as any other: each argument raises more questions than it answers. However, all make clear that the outcome has the capacity to hugely influence the UK’s response to environmental issues and, in this aspect more than any other, the decision will have far-reaching implications, as UK environmental policy has global effects.

Photograph: Akuppa John Wigham via Flickr

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