Climate change and pollution are no respecters of national boundaries, and at this time of climate crisis, we need to work together to protect our environment. The EU has consistently prioritised environmental protection where the UK government has lagged behind, on everything from renewable energy to harmful pesticides and GMOs. And in those areas where the UK does take the lead (like animal welfare), it makes sense for us to remain in the EU, to help improve conditions beyond our own borders.
It’s only through concerted international efforts that we have a chance of solving the climate crisis. As a powerful block of countries the EU has played a key role in ensuring that we have international action on this crucial issue. It was EU that put the 1.5° temperature reduction target back on the agenda at the Paris climate talks in December 2015. The EU has led the way internationally for setting mandatory carbon reduction standards and has set ambitious climate and energy targets, putting the EU at the forefront in tackling climate change and well placed to influence major polluters like China and the US.
The European Parliament voted in favour of phasing out all fossil fuels by 2050 and has passed legislation on the energy efficiency of products and targets for rapid introduction of renewable energy capacity so that we can meet this ambitious target. The EU has introduced mandatory energy efficiency targets for a range of domestic appliances including hairdryers and vacuum cleaners. This reduces carbon emissions but also says consumers money that they would’ve wasted on unnecessary electricity. It’s the power out not the power in that matters.
Our membership of the EU requires us to achieve 40% reduction in greenhouse gases; 40% saving in energy use and to increase the proportion of renewable energy to 30%. It is unclear whether we would maintain these targets if we were to leave the EU.
Protecting our environment
Environmental pollution does not stop at national borders. So the major threats to our environment must be tackled collectively.
Our beaches are cleaner, our air less polluted, and our wildlife is far safer because of EU protections. We benefit from over 100 European laws protecting people and our environment. It is the UK government that has sought to implement fracking under our national parks, and which focuses not on the breaches of air pollution thresholds but on trying to avoid fines for the lack of action taken to protect us.
Before we were members of the EU we were known as the dirty man of Europe because of the poor quality of environment including coal-fired power stations causing acid rain and raw sewage being pumped into our seas which came back onto our beaches.
The Government has dropped some heavy hints about what would happen to our environmental rules if we quit the EU. Ministers have tried their best to water down air pollution rules, the Chancellor has said that EU nature laws place ‘ridiculous costs’ on British firms and, most worryingly of all, the Government has been vigorously stripping away support for clean energy and renewable technology in the UK.
The EU also funds action to meet these environmental standards. Since the launch of the LIFE programme (a programme to fund environmental projects) by the European Commission in 1992, a total of 235 projects have been co-financed in the United Kingdom. Of these, 162 focus on environmental innovation, 66 on nature conservation and biodiversity and seven on information and communication. These projects represent a total investment of €967 million, of which €241.5 million has been contributed by the European Union.
Pesticides and GMOs
The EU bases its policy on the precautionary principle, which means that when new processes or chemicals are invented they are not licensed until they can be proved to do no harm. This is in contrast to the policy process followed in the US, where a licence is granted until harm can be proved. The UK government has been objecting to the precautionary principle for some time and would be unlikely to maintain this risk-averse policy approach if we were to leave the EU.
An example of the precautionary principle in practice is the ban on GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) in the human food chain. The EU has resisted pressure from agribusiness corporations to permit GMOs into the European market, although this resistance has been unpicked to some extent as a result of pressure from the UK government. You can read more about the EU’s legislation on GMOs here.
The UK government is also working to ensure a new licence for the pesticide Glyphosate, in spite of concerns that it may cause cancer. The licensing process has been postponed because other countries’ governments blocked the process, another example of us gaining greater protection because of our membership of the EU.
There is a similar story with pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which have been shown to be damaging to bee populations. In 2013 a majority of EU member states voted to restrict the use of these pesticides, a decision that was opposed by the UK government.
It seems clear that other European governments are providing us with protection against dangerous pesticides and agricultural technologies and that we would lose this protection if we were to leave the EU.
The EU has improved conditions for animals where national governments have failed to act, and its influence is felt beyond European borders. The EU brought in a blanket ban on animal testing for cosmetics; banned the import of products newly tested on animals; and suspended the use of toxic bee-killing pesticides.
In this case the UK is showing leadership to the rest of Europe and we could expect standards there to decline if we were to leave the EU. In several instances the UK led the way and EU law-makers followed our lead – an example is the way the EU has brought in bans on cruel factory farming practices:
The UK banned sow stalls in 1999, EU ban followed in 2013.
The UK banned veal crates in 1990, EU ban followed in 2007.
The UK banned animal testing for cosmetics in 1998, the EU in 2009.
In February 2013 the European Commission began infraction proceedings against 9 EU Member States for failing to be compliant with the ban. By January 2014 this number had fallen to 6 non-compliant Member States
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