In or out? What the EU referendum means for nature in Britain

On Thursday 23rd June 2016 there will be a referendum to decide whether or not the UK remains a member of the European Union (EU).

There has been much debate in the media on the pros and cons of Britain’s potential exit or ‘Brexit’ from the EU. Most discussions have centred on issues like business, trade, and immigration. But one important matter that gets consistently overlooked is the impact of the decision for nature, wildlife and the environment.

The Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) states that the EU has developed ‘probably the most complete and influential body of environmental law and policy in the world’. If the UK leaves the EU but stays within the European Economic Area (EEA) or European Free Trade Association (EFTA), then it will still have to abide by many of these laws in order to retain access to the Single Market, but many more would no longer apply.

So how have these laws shaped the UK’s ecosystem and how would the country potentially get along without them?


A UK coal-fired power station. Photo by ditttmer / Shutterstock
A UK coal-fired power station. Photo by ditttmer / Shutterstock

In the 1970s the UK was dubbed ‘the Dirty Man of Europe’. The country had the highest emissions of acid rain causing greenhouse gas, sulphur dioxide (SO2), in the EU; while its seas were pumped full of untreated sewage, leaving its beaches treacherous to swim in. But EU legislation caused the nation to clean up its act.

Thanks to the EU Water Framework Directive, over 95% of Britain’s beaches are now clean enough for a dip, giving a tremendous boost to the local economies of seaside towns, while the ecology of lakes, rivers and other water bodies has improved dramatically. Meanwhile, following the introduction of the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive, SO2 emissions dropped by 94% between 1970 and 2011, preventing tens of thousands of premature deaths.

Of course, these directives haven’t eliminated water or air pollution, and it’s perfectly possible that a post-Brexit government could decide to keep up the good work in this area. However, Britain’s recent track record on air and water quality standards has raised doubts amongst leading environmentalists about its commitment to tackling pollution.  

‘The EU puts pressure on us to perform better,’ explains Professor Paul Ekins, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy at University College London. ‘We are currently being fined by the EU for breaching air quality laws, while the WWF recently brought a judicial review against the government for failing to meet standards in the water framework directive.’

EU membership has also given Britain greener, less polluting goods and services, such as more efficient water-heating systems and household cleaning products containing fewer toxic chemicals. This is thanks to the Single Market, which requires common laws for goods and services and prevents Member States from gaining a competitive edge by cutting environmental corners. The UK may be able to retain access to the Single Market if it leaves the EU but stays within the EEA or EFTA, but this may take several years of negotiation, spelling uncertainty for businesses in the interim.

Waste management

 Morning light on Newhaven waste incinerator, East Sussex UK. Household waste from Brighton and nearby areas is processed at Newhaven where it is burned to generate electricity for local homes. Photo by Peter Cripps / Shutterstock

Morning light on Newhaven waste incinerator, East Sussex UK. Household waste from Brighton and nearby areas is processed at Newhaven where it is burned to generate electricity for local homes. Photo by Peter Cripps / Shutterstock

Following the introduction of the EU Waste Framework and Landfill Directives, the UK’s household recycling rates increased from around 12% to 43% between 2002 and 2012. Despite this, the country currently ranks an unimpressive 10th in the EU for recycling, lagging far behind star performers like Belgium, Austria and Germany who send just five per cent of their waste to landfill.

Environmentalists believe that there is a danger that, without the pressure of EU targets, the UK may lose impetus on waste management, causing uncertainty for the industry and associated green businesses, which says Professor Ekins, ‘invest hundreds of millions of pounds into expensive recycling equipment on the basis that Britain has to meet certain standards’.

If the UK were to leave the EU, it would also miss out on the new Circular Economy Package, which will introduce even tougher recycling targets along with incentives for Member States to meet them.

‘It will incentivise repairing stuff, designing stuff to last longer and finding more sustainable business models,’ explains Henry Chown, Campaigner for environmental NGO, Friends of the Earth (FoE). ‘We’re likely to be left behind if we leave the EU, left to watch the rest of Europe push ahead with innovative measures to reduce their waste mountains.’

Green energy

Photo by WDG Photo / Shutterstock
Photo by WDG Photo / Shutterstock

In 2009, the EU implemented the Renewable Energy Directive with the aim of mitigating the effects of climate change by generating 20% of its energy supply from renewables by 2020. The legislation required the UK and other Member States to draw up action plans to show how they were going to meet national targets, and accordingly, Britain quadrupled the percentage of its electricity from renewables between 2008 and 2015.

Despite this great progress, FoE fears that the UK isn’t on track to meet its green energy targets. Last year, in a bid to reduce consumer energy bills, the Conservative government scrapped new subsidies for onshore wind farms, as well as cutting financial aid to home owners installing rooftop solar panels.

Moves like these risk putting off foreign investors in British green industries but, according to Professor Ekins, the UK’s EU membership should provide them with enough reassurance to carry on investing.

‘This current government has introduced lots of changes to the energy sector that may be disruptive to investors but as a member of the EU it is bound by directives on climate and energy to keep emissions down,’ he says. ‘If we leave the EU then the long-term direction of travel is less certain.’

Furthermore, released from EU environmental directives, there is a danger that the government would face tremendous pressure from the energy industry to lower standards on energy efficiency.


Waxwing in berry tree. Photo by craigbirdphotos / Shutterstock
Waxwing in berry tree. Photo by craigbirdphotos / Shutterstock

The EU Nature Directives, especially the Birds and Habitats Directives, form the backbone of nature conservation across Europe, including the UK.

These laws provide protection to land and waterscapes that are home to some of Europe’s most threatened species and habitats. Research by the RSPB shows that since they were implemented, the rate of decline in sites of importance to nature in the UK has dropped from 15% per year down to just one per cent.

In all Brexit scenarios—i.e. whether the UK wangles EEA or EFTA membership or not—the Birds and Habitats Directives would no longer apply. This would require the UK government to draw up new nature conservation policies from scratch. There’s a chance that these new polices could offer even better protection for wildlife than currently provided by the EU, but even if that were the case, the next government could always come along and scrap them.

Professor Ekins believes that, while far from perfect and in need of urgent reform to stop and reverse the decline in habitats, the Nature Directives offer the best protection for UK wildlife: ‘They take sites of importance for nature out of the everyday political hurly burly and prevent governments from lowering protection standards.’  

Agriculture and fishery

Yorkshire Dales. Photo by Capture Light / Shutterstock
Yorkshire Dales. Photo by Capture Light / Shutterstock

The EU hasn’t always been a force for good in the natural world. The two main areas in which it has put pressure on the UK’s environment are agriculture and fishing. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been accused of promoting unsustainable practices through its focus on over-production and intensification, while the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has exploited marine environments and decimated fish stocks through excessive fishing quotas.

The CAP and CFP have been subject to reforms over the decades, with farmers now receiving subsidies for farming less intensively and restoring habitats such as ponds and hedgerows, while fish stocks have been substantially replenished thanks to the revision of fishing quotas and measures to stop unwanted fish from being discarded.

Nevertheless, Brexit campaigners, including Farming Minister George Eustice, believe that the UK could farm and fish more sustainably free from the bonds of these policies.

Mr Eustice argues that leaving the EU would enable the British government to ‘invest more into science and technology’ to develop more wildlife-friendly farming methods and ‘reduce reliance on harmful pesticides’. However, FoE is concerned that a post-Brexit government would be tempted to reintroduce neonicotinoid pesticides, which are banned in the EU. The country recently opposed the restrictions on neonics despite scientific evidence showing that they harm honey bees.

Mr Eustice also believes that on its own the UK could negotiate a better deal for British fish stocks and fishermen by dealing directly with the North Atlantic Fisheries Commission—the organisation that decides many fishing rights in the North Sea, as well as regaining control and protection of its waters.

‘Freed from the hindrance of the EU, the UK would assert itself as the lead power in the North East Atlantic to deliver fairness and sustainable fishing,’ he asserts.  

Nevertheless, Britain’s wildlife, both in land and at sea, would still face a period of uncertainty without the protection of the Nature Directives.  

Cross border challenges

Beachy Head Lighthouse. Photo by stocker1970 / Shutterstock.
Beachy Head Lighthouse. Photo by stocker1970 / Shutterstock.

Besides benefiting from laws and polices that provide long-term protection to its countryside and wildlife, EU membership also gives the UK a platform from which to address cross-border environmental issues.

‘A single country doesn’t have a lot of clout, but through working as part of a bloc of countries, the UK has been quite influential at tackling global issues such as climate change and deforestation,’ says Professor Ekins.

Indeed, according to a recent report from the Environmental Audit Committee, Britain played a pivotal role in last year’s climate change talks in Paris, which led to a global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030.

In addition, environmental NGOs such as The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB argue that multilateral action is essential to protecting species, such as migratory birds and marine animals, which know no national boundaries.

Launching the EAC report, EAC Chair Mary Creagh MP said: ‘Environmental problems don’t respect borders. When it comes to protecting our natural environment and dealing with global problems like climate change, the overwhelming evidence is that EU membership has improved the UK’s approach to the environment and ensured that the UK’s environment has been better protected.’

Of course, not everyone agrees with this view. Former Trade Secretary Peter Lilley MP countered the conclusions of the EAC, of which he is a member, arguing that it is contradictory to say that the UK has been both a leader and a follower on green issues, and insisting that the country could have a greater say on international environmental matters by gaining its own seat on bodies such as CITES—an international wildlife protection treaty.

Decision time

The environment is just one of many issues that voters need to weigh up before putting a tick in the box marked Remain or Leave on 23rd June. But a vote for nature need not be a vote against business. After all, the words ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’ have the same route—eikos—Greek for home. Whether or not the UK decides its home is in the EU or not, it’s worth bearing in mind that, in the long run, what’s good for nature is usually good for business too.


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