While my life as an MEP continues with the busy round of committee meetings and visits to scythe fairs (ok, that was something of a one-off!) it is hard not to be distracted by the referendum campaign. It is especially hard to overlook the comments from George Eustice, the environment minister who is fighting for us to leave the EU, about the impact of the EU’s environmental legislation.
The EU has been widely praised as a global beacon of strong protection for species, habitats, and the cleanliness of our air, water and beaches. This has led to a raft of the UK’s environmental pressure groups coming down clearly in support for our continued membership of the EU; even risking their charitable status in the process. From Friends of the Earth and RSPB to the Wildlife Trusts and Bug Life, the organisations that do the most to restrain the destructive impacts of unsustainable business have joined in common voice to make clear the importance of our remaining inside the EU.
However, there is less unity at DEFRA. To Eustice this legislation is ‘spirit crushing’. He gleefully foresees the end of the Birds and Habitats Directives. Greening and cross-compliance measures included in the Common Agricultural Policy would, in a post-Brexit world, be replaced with insurance schemes and non-statutory accreditation.
The hostility to climate change action is also a feature shared by many in the Leave camp. Former Chair of Vote Leave, Nigel Lawson, was the founder of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which dedicated itself to delaying government action on climate change, while leading Brexiteer Michael Gove tried to remove a study of climate change from the school curriculum during his disasterous stint as Minister of Education.
We have already seen from this Tory government the impact of their close ties with the fossil fuel industry and their hostility to renewables. However, the prevalence of ideological opponents of climate change suggests an even more troubled future for the UK’s hugely promising renewables industry outside the EU, where we would no longer have the current mandatory targets on renewable capacity.
While in many EU member states the Green transition has been seen as an economic opportunity, to the British Conservative party it is always portrayed as a burden on business. No wonder, then, that we have no capacity for the manufacture of either solar panels or large-scale wind turbines (and full credit to Dale Vince for developing micro turbines in my home town of Stroud). Small wonder also that the Tory government has shown such inordinate enthusiasm for the toxic white elephant at Hinkley Point, but has always been lukewarm about the proposed tidal lagoons in the Severn Estuary which would represent a huge engineering advance for the country.
This distorted view of EU policy to support green industry has been typified by the banal and ill-informed debate around energy-efficient products. While other European manufacturers are watching energy standards tighten and upgrading their products to match, British businessmen are forced to read the Daily Express nonsense about floppy toast and the theft of the Great British roast. The higher-efficiency products will limit energy in, not energy out, meaning they work better and reduce consumers’ energy bills. But given the deliberate misunderstanding of this policy in the UK, we are unlikely to see them manufactured here, as foreign competitors with support from their forward-thinking, future-proofing governments have a huge industrial advantage.
The absence of the environment from the referendum campaign has been noted by Green commentators, but I think the environment is highly present as a ‘hidden’ issue. When Brexiteers talk about cutting red tape, what they have in mind is a full-scale assault on the legislation that protects our special places and ensures climate responsibility from businesses. This foreshadows a Dickensian world where the profit motive is allowed to let rip, heralding a chilly future indeed for Green Business.
This blog was originally posted on Business Green.