Strong progress made on everything from biodiversity to recycling will all be put at risk if the UK votes to leave the European Union.
Scientists recently declared that the evidence is compelling enough to say we are now living in the Anthropocene. Humanity’s impact on the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and wildlife has, they argued, pushed the world into this new epoch.
Britain is a world leader on the environment and has played a pivotal role in the European Union on this issue ever since 1986, when Margaret Thatcher signed the Single European Act, which established the EU’s competence in this area. If we are to play our part in ensuring a green future for the UK, we must remain in the EU.
Yet the impact that leaving the EU would have on the UK’s environmental standards rarely features in discussions about the referendum. The environmental audit committee, of which I am a member, is currently reviewing this. The evidence so far is clear: families in Britain and our rivers, beaches and special places would pay the price if we voted to leave.
In 1995, under the last Conservative government, the UK was dirty man of Europe. Some 83% of our household waste went to landfill and just 7% was recycled or composted. By 2014, thanks to a series of EU directives, the UK’s recycling rate had reached 45%. The UK currently recycles 90% of construction materials, well ahead of other countries.
Some 99% of our beaches now comply with EU minimum standards on cleanliness. Gone are the days of my childhood when I emerged from the sea at Blackpool covered in oil. Seaside towns also benefit as cleaner beaches mean more tourists and stronger local economies. In 2014, the Environment Agency estimated that the net benefit in England and Wales of implementing the EU Water Framework Directive by 2027 was £9bn.
The EU has cleaned up its air. Between 1970 and 2014, UK nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions fell by more than two-thirds, reducing the risk of respiratory diseases. Over the same period, sulphur dioxide emissions in the UK dropped by 95%. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimates that bringing the UK in line with EU emissions directives will have a net benefit of £1.45bn by 2020.
Biodiversity loss is another significant environmental challenge the EU faces. The Birds and Habitats Directives are the bedrock of the EU’s nature policies and have enabled bird species and some large carnivore species to recover, while the Natura 2000 Directive obliges the UK government to provide protected nature zones.
Meanwhile, our renewable energy capacity is growing, thanks to national targets set by the EU Renewable Energy Directive. In 2013, 15% of electricity produced in the UK came from renewable sources.
Not only is our carbon footprint shrinking as we reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but this has created opportunities for renewable energy companies to grow. Anyone who thinks the environment will be better off if we left the EU should take a long hard look at the Tory record. The Tories have talked green but acted blue. They tried to sell off England’s forests, they reduced solar subsidies by 65%, scrapped support for onshore wind and are selling off the green investment bank.
EU environmental legislation means a better deal for consumers. Phasing out inefficient lightbulbs on an EU-wide basis has saved British consumers £110 on their energy bills every year. Higher standards on new car efficiency have saved UK customers billions in petrol and diesel costs. New car annual fuel consumption is set to be half of what it was in 1997 by 2020.
EU legislation helps keep our environmental standards on track. It forces successive governments of whatever colour to maintain a long-term view and gives businesses the certainty they need to invest. Many of the environmental challenges we face are cross-border, so we must continue to work with our European neighbours to tackle them. Our record is strong, but all that progress is at risk if the UK votes to leave.
All those who have given evidence to the committee’s inquiry on the impact of the EU on UK environmental policy, from the American Chambers of Commerce to the RSPB have been clear that we should remain in the EU. Meanwhile, the Chinese and Indian governments have invited the European commission to help them to clean up their water and air. The EU has global expertise in the environment.
The evidence is clear. The EU has more influence globally with the UK as a member. And as a member, we have more influence globally: our voice in the Paris climate change talks was amplified because we were part of a club of 28 countries.
If we leave, we will have to implement EU environment law without a seat at the table and a vote in decisions. When the UK can lead from the inside, why would we walk away? Ensuring the UK has a cleaner, greener future relies on our EU membership. Anyone who argues otherwise will be on the wrong side of history.
This article was first published in The Guardian, 21 January 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jan/21/for-a-clean-green-future-britain-must-remain-in-the-eu-mary-creagh