As the EU referendum approaches, our newspapers, airwaves and social media are bursting with arguments from both sides of the debate. There are hundreds of reasons why I believe that we are stronger, safer and better off in the EU. But one of them gets a little less airtime than the others: the positive impact of the EU on our environment.
In March, the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee, which I chair, published a report on how our EU membership affects our natural environment. The evidence to the inquiry was overwhelming: thanks to the EU, Britain is no longer the 'dirty man' of Europe but a world leader on environmental policy.
EU environmental law has been fundamental to cleaning up our air and water, improving our recycling rates, boosting renewable energy and making our cars more fuel efficient. It has saved consumers millions in energy and fuel costs. It has improved the health and wellbeing of our communities. And it has led the world in tackling global threats like climate change.
Where once it was dangerous to swim in or swallow the water in our seas and rivers, it is now safe for humans and wildlife. Environmentalists for Europe, a cross party campaign for a ‘remain’ vote, celebrated our clean beaches over bank holiday weekend by holding beach parties across the country, from Scarborough to Swansea. 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.
We need to speed up progress on air quality in our towns and cities - something I am all too aware of on my daily commute by bike. But EU environmental laws are behind the huge improvements we have seen since the 1970s. UK-wide emissions of sulphur dioxide, which causes acid rain, have been slashed and the dirtiest coal power stations phased out. What's more, EU air quality targets mean that we can hold the Government to account on air pollution. It was a defeat in the European Court of Justice that forced our national government to come up with long overdue solutions, like low emission zones.
Our renewable energy capacity is growing, thanks to national targets set by the EU Renewable Energy Directive. In 2005, 1% of our electricity came from renewables - that is now 25%. 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.
Does anyone think the environment would be better protected by the likes of climate change sceptics John Redwood and Roger Helmer if we voted to leave? The Tories have talked green but acted in true blue style. They tried to sell off England’s forests, reduced solar subsidies by 65%, scrapped support for onshore wind and are selling the Green Investment Bank.
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.
Britain took a leading role in shaping the EU's stance in international negotiations on climate change. Our voice at the Paris climate change talks was louder because we were leading from inside the EU.
Our environmental record is strong, but that progress is at risk if the UK votes to leave.
If we left, UK businesses would still have to comply with EU environmental standards, just as Norwary does, to access the Single Market. But we wouldn’t have any say in how those laws are made. For all the Brexiteers’ bluster about sovereignty, we would lose decision-making power if we left. Inside the EU we can influence and improve EU environmental law.
A vote to leave would be a leap in the dark. There is no clarity over what our relationship with other countries would be in the case of Brexit. All we know for sure it that it would lead to a prolonged period of uncertainty. Government Minister Rory Stewart says a vote to leave would trigger a "long and tortuous" negotiation. This would be bad for businesses, bad for households and bad for the environment.
This debate is often reduced to one of borders. But environmental problems go beyond them. When it comes to protecting wildlife, improving fuel and energy efficiency, and dealing with global problems like climate change, the overwhelming evidence is that working with our neighbours has ensured the UK environment has been better protected.
When the UK can lead from the inside, why would we walk away? To continue building a cleaner, greener and healthier UK, we must vote ‘remain’ on 23 June.
This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on 31 May 2016.