Barbara Young: Environment doesn’t respect borders so EU best hope of change

EU regulations may be the bogeyman of the Leave campaign but they have helped protect Europe and the UK's natural environment. Picture: Toby Williams
EU regulations may be the bogeyman of the Leave campaign but they have helped protect Europe and the UK's natural environment. Picture: Toby Williams
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In the latest in our series on Scotland’s future, Barbara Young of Environmentalists for Europe sets out why we should consider the environment and Vote Remain for Nature

Many of the overwhelming reasons for remaining in the European Union have already been rehearsed and for me they are compelling. They include 70 years without a major European or world war, economic arguments of preferential access to the single market and the boost to our international influence by being part of a major power block capable of holding its own with the US, China and Russia in an uncertain and increasingly dangerous world.

But one of the key and compelling reasons has been little heard, that Europe has been good for the environment. What is even more interesting is that when the environmental case is quoted, it isn’t immediately rebutted by the Brexit camp. It seems that the case is strong and undeniable. In a campaign where the same facts are confusingly used by both sides to support opposing conclusions, perhaps the public would welcome the straightforward and good news case that staying in the EU is a good idea for a healthy environment.

The environment is no respecter of national boundaries. Across Europe we share the same air, and seas and migratory species of birds and fish. That’s even more true of England and Scotland.Half of our air pollution goes to Europe and it generously sends half of its pollution to us. International patterns of waste management and safe chemical production and use all depend on member states of the EU working together to negotiate, monitor and enforce common environmental standards. We are all in this together.

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For the UK, including Scotland, the vast majority of environmental standards are drawn from EU legislation: water and air quality, waste management, protection of the important wildlife sites and iconic species for which Scotland is famed, the impact of chemicals on the environment and human health. The majesty of the Flow Country, Islay’s geese and the health of salmon and seals in Scotland’s seas and rivers have as their foundation EU environmental standards. Strangely, member states working together have been able to be more ambitious than they would have been acting separately and they have worked harder on implementation. Back in the 1980s, the UK was known as the “dirty man of Europe” when we pumped raw sewage regularly into rivers and seas and produced more sulphur dioxide and acid rain than any other European nation. We could have done something about this as the UK standing alone but we did not. Since then, working collectively with our EU partners – egging each other on – we reached EU agreements that meant EU sulphur dioxide pollution fell by almost 90 per cent over 20 years. Now there are over 600 UK beaches safe to bathe on where there were once less than 20. The bad old days of the Forth and Clyde being open sewers have gone and healthier populations of fish and mammals are back in our rivers.

Even the much criticised common agricultural policy (CAP) has been of net positive benefit, with agrienvironmental measures and EU payments to back them up. Having an EU mechanism for greening agriculture, at least round the edges, has been invaluable, with woods and hedges and wildlife strips and in-bye land brought back that intensification had driven out. CAP still needs reform to be truly green but at least it is a lever that is attached to something!

The EU also brings environmental benefits beyond its boundaries. Collectively, the EU has muscle on the international stage. It has been the leading voice in calling for international action on a range of conservation challenges and in negotiating with the biggest polluters and emitters globally. We would not have had the success that the Paris Climate Change Conference delivered globally without the leadership shown by the EU bloc. As President Obama said, “When the climate agreement needed a push, it was the EU, fortified by the UK, that helped make that possible”. Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world. We can’t afford to be merely a spear carrier on that stage; we need to be one of the big players.

High environmental standards are not just about the environment. Scotland more than most knows how they underpin important Scottish industries like tourism. They also drive innovation and technology and reshape markets. The UK has a green economy worth £112 billion and a £5bn trade surplus in green goods and services. Shared EU standards in the single market can drive that further to the benefit of the Scottish economy.

What would happen to all this if the UK left the European Union? Many of our UK standards are not enshrined in UK law – they simply comply with European regulations. I am not confident that we would see equivalent UK environmental legislation put in place any time soon. Would a post-Brexit government prioritise the protection and restoration of nature, for example, when there would so much else to disentangle? So far, the Brexiteers have been strangely silent on this. No doubt they would say that they would take care of the environment domestically just as well. But the history of the UK upping standards on its own is not great. Many of the lead Brexiteers are, if not flat-earthers and climate change deniers, at least deregulators, with one of their key drivers for leaving to get rid of “red tape”, which means in many cases environmental standards. At best we might negotiate an economic agreement with the single market that would require us to achieve the majority of EU standards, but why put ourselves in the Norwegian position of having to comply but having no influence on the shaping of these standards: the “pay, obey, but no say” position?

Those laws and regulations not covered by single-market rules would simply cease to apply. Most importantly for Scotland, this would include important important measures like the Nature Directives which have driven action to bring threatened species back from the brink and have protected our most iconic and treasured habitats and sites. Associated with these directives, Scotland has benefited greatly from EU grants for their implementation, with major projects on corncrakes, peat lands, and the islands to name but a few.

In England, we already have experience of what happens to environmental standards that depend entirely on UK law – they are highly vulnerable to internal pressures. The Chancellor with a unilateral unconsulted stroke killed in their infancy carbon capture and storage development, zero-carbon homes, onshore wind power in England and the Green Deal for encouraging domestic climate change measures. The victim of his Autumn Statement was not just the environment. Such fickleness undermines green markets and destroys investor confidence in green industries. EU environmental agreements may take a long time to negotiate, but once they are there, they provide certainty that is important for business and investors.

People complain that, on both sides, the EU referendum campaign has been doom laden and aimed at a scaring voters. The environment case is about over 25 years of success and lots more to go for in the future. Which is why Stanely Johnstone (Boris’s dad!) and I founded Environmentalists for Europe, to get this good and positive story out there. The EU still has a job to do. We need a committed group of EU nations to make the Paris climate change agreement happen. The CAP is a hugely powerful lever for environmentally sound land management across Europe if we can get it right. Tree disease, so important, for Scotland’s woodlands and forestry, needs EU wide action on control of alien invasive species.

By remaining in the EU and working collaboratively with our EU partners we can protect clean air, water, thriving wildlife and drive an effective approach to climate change. What’s not too like about this great uncelebrated positive case for Voting to Remain.

Barbara Young, Baroness Young of Old Scone, is a member of the Environmentalists for Europe steering committee – Vote Remain for Nature