The environmental argument for the UK remaining in the European Union

Every week I receive an email bulletin called Science for Environment Policy, sent out by the Directorate-General for Environment, which is the European Commission department that sets and monitors European Union policies relating to the environment, for example pollution levels, conservation of biodiversity, etc.  Anyone can subscribe to these bulletins and they provide useful, lay-person summaries of recent research findings that have a direct or indirect bearing on how we manage and protect Europe’s environment.

A scan through the latest few bulletins reveals article titles such as:

  • Atlantic beaches of Europe reshaped in stormy winter of 2013–2014
  • Water management: five policy conditions to help overcome the challenges of an uncertain future
  • Climate change threatens early-flowering plants due to lack of snow
  • Black carbon emissions of individual cars measured under real conditions
  • Are endocrine disrupting chemicals responsible for downward trends in male fertility?
  • Environmental performance of construction and demolition waste management
  • Golden jackal should not be treated as an alien species in Europe
  • Environmental taxation in the right place can increase business productivity 

This set of topics is fairly typical, and demonstrates the complexity and breadth of the environmental issues facing the European Union.  All of these issues, however, share one feature: they do not respect political boundaries and are cross-border in scope.  Species, rivers, air masses, sea currents, economic resources, waste products: all of them can (and do) move through the different countries of Europe and beyond.

What this means is that the policies, laws and regulations that govern the behaviour of individuals and organisations towards the environment, and ultimately protect it, must also be cross-border in scope.  That’s where the European Union comes in, because it is largely EU directives that currently protect our environment.  Some examples of these directives, and some of their achievements, include:

  • Birds Directive which has helped to coordinate action plans for endangered resident and migratory birds.
  • Habitats Directive that relates to the conservation of natural habitats and the fauna and flora they contain, including setting up the Natura 2000 network that currently covers more that 18% of the EU’s land area and almost 6% of its marine territory, making it the world’s largest coordinated network of protected areas.
  • Water Framework Directive that determines action in the area of water policy.
  • Waste Framework Directive likewise determines action in the area of wastes policy and which, together with the Landfill Directive and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive, has been responsible for significantly reducing the amount of waste going into landfill, increased the amount being recycled, and placed pressure on manufacturers to take responsibility for packaging and end-of-life goods and materials.

There are many others, and you can find a list here.  It’s worth pointing out that these directives were not “imposed” on the UK by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels: the UK took an active role in their development and drafting.  In fact Boris Johnson’s father, Stanley Johnson, was one of the original authors of the Habitats Directive and is a prominent advocate of remaining in the EU.

Of course, no one is arguing that these directives are the only mechanism for protecting the environment, there are local regulations too, plus the work of NGOs such as the RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts.  Nor am I arguing that they have been wholly effective: there’s still a long way to go in many of these areas.  But they have had a demonstrably positive impact on the quality and protection of the UK’s environment that could be halted, or even reversed, if the UK was to leave the EU.

This last point is an important one to make and it’s not an example of the fear-mongering that has marked the EU Referendum debate on both sides.  Here is how I see it:  we cannot trust the UK government (whatever its political flavour) to safeguard our environment.

This is because, despite the best efforts of genuinely committed and environmentally savvy politicians, the political parties to which they belong are too focused on short-term goals of winning the next election to really consider the 20, 50, or 100 year perspectives that are required for environmental legislation.  This inevitably means that the environment is low on the list of priorities for most ministers, and environmental policy is subject to undue influence by special interest groups.  For example look at how easily Defra was persuaded to allow exceptions to the EU moratorium on neonicotinoid pesticides.  Likewise the HS2 project which ministers seem determined to keep going despite serious concerns about the environmental impact of the project (see my post “Ordinary by Choice“).

When considering whether or not to vote to remain in the EU, most people (understandably) are focused on the social and economic arguments: the impacts on jobs, standards of living, resources for health, etc.  But in part the environmental argument is a social and economic argument, because the natural environment underpins many jobs, our standards of living (who doesn’t want to live near unpolluted green space that is protected for future generations?), and plays an important part in the nation’s health and wellbeing.  The provision of these “ecosystem services” were clearly spelled out last year in Tony Juniper’s book What Nature Does for Britain, which I reviewed on this blog.

I’m not arguing that everything in the European Union is perfect, or even that the environment of the UK and the rest of the EU is as good as it ought to be, or could be.  But for every statistic about declining species and poor environments, it’s possible to quote figures for the success of other species and improvements in quality.  For example our major rivers such as the Thames, Tees, Mersey and Avon are now swimming with fish where once they were swimming with excrement, as I’ve previously discussed in relation to the River Wear.  Our membership of the European Union is, at least in part, responsible for these positive trends and I hope that they continue.  Please consider this when you’re deciding how to vote on 23rd June.


Postscript: much of what I’ve discussed above is being widely talked about amongst environmentalists, and I don’t know of any major environmental organisation that is in favour of the UK leaving the EU.  In fact a large number have publicly come out in favour of staying, including:

Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management

The Wildlife Trusts


The RSPB and WWF-UK, who have produced a joint statement.

Friends of the Earth


There is also a group called Environmentalists For Europe

So don’t just take my word for it.




11 thoughts on “The environmental argument for the UK remaining in the European Union

  1. Janet Jackson

    Just wanted to add a little to Water Framework Directive (WFD) headline above – this directive includes requirements of government to monitor 21 biological components of rivers, plus a high number of historic (e.g. DDT) and more significant ‘modern’ pollutants (including pesticides from agriculture, heavy metals from urban runoff, pharmaceutical residue from our sewage systems, etc.).

    The EU WFD and the Flood Directive is requiring a more comprehensive partnership approach to river catchment management to improve water quality and reduce flood risk, and local authorities now have a flood emergency plan and have identified areas at risk. This is preferable to a political knee jerk, ‘let’s dredge the rivers’ approach – in fact a MSc dissertation a few years ago demonstrated trapped DDT in ditch sediments that were biologically unavailable unless disturbed by dredging.

  2. Steve Hawkins

    I tend to be with you on the short-termist and materialistic nature of the arguments of both the ‘in’ and the ‘out’ campaigns. Their concentration on ‘growth’ and ‘The (sacred) Economy’ leaves me cold, and the entreaties of many supposedly environmentally aware friends, about how important it is for them to breeze in and out of other countries with all the ease of driving down the road for the weekly shop is really depressing. ‘Socially aware’ people are even threatening that house prices might *fall* if the UK left: That’s what we want for all our first time buyers: isn’t it? :/

    Anyhow, as with yourself, I’ve tended to just go with the environmental and rights regs, that might, if we’re lucky, somehow dissuade our cavalier main parties to rein in some of the more outrageous development schemes.

    But: there’s an overwhelmingly huge BUT, that may trump all the rest: and that is the truly frightening rate of sustained population growth that the UK has brought down on itself since the mid nineties, due to our politician’s crazy obsession with infinite growth by construction.

    Virtually nobody will face up to this insane situation: it is simply not permitted to point out the glaringly obvious fact that some places are smaller than others and must tailor their growth to fit, and then stop.

    When the Beds Structure Plan was at EIP (1995 I think). FoE and CPRE went through all the projections that, supposedly, underlay the new Plan, and could see that the planners had simply projected continuous building and then added some, when, in fact, the actual *rate* of pop growth and household formation had been falling and both were set to go negative around the turn of the century. Yet the ‘planners’ were set on identifying more land for development in the next 15y than had actually been developed in the last 30!

    In all previous Plans (from the records) there had been much argument over the population figures, because the people are what the plans were originally meant to provide for. This time, population had not been slated for discussion at all! The handful of environmentalists around the table, tried to demand that it was vital to discuss the imminent end of pop growth, but the Inspector ‘put it to the vote’, and we were outnumbered 5 to 1 by developers, so it didn’t get discussed. I said they had better get ready for a crash soon after the millennium because they were banking on ‘creating jobs’ and ‘making homes’ for people who would not exist.

    The crash came, but it was a near thing, because this latest, country wide, round of plans–with the new prime purpose of promoting ‘growth’ rather than the original purpose of, providing for need in the most resource-conserving way–had ‘created’ masses of jobs for non-existent denizens, just in time for the widening of the EU borders. Naturally, people flocked here, and did so faster than the actual building could keep up, so the perverse imperative to keep developing faster and faster was reinstated and has been drawing in population at an increasing rate ever since. We are now faced with providing for a ‘new Bristol’ every year, and the numbers are still going up. The ONS projected an average 400,000 a year not long ago, but we were already around the half million last year. Two weeks ago, London alone was projected to grow by 13.7% by 2024.

    This is complete madness, but, if you check Eurostat, things are even worse (especially as their last projections were 2013–before the refugee crisis). The fact is, that Europe’s population growth was essentially all being projected to take place in the UK (which mostly means England).

    Under this sort of unprecedented, and totally artificially created, population pressure (for ‘growth’ just for the sake of the construction industry), environmental concerns, and most especially, wildlife, look to me to be pretty much doomed (And that’s without mentioning the starvation coming when we’ve used up the 50 odd remaining harvests’-worth of soil we still have.).

    You can check the data. The report hasn’t emphasised the points I’ve made, but you can balance the numbers, and see for yourself–and add more for the refugee crisis:


    [UK 64.8 in 2015:]

    EU pop to increase by 13.2 million by 2080;

    UK pop projected to be 85.1 million by 2080; (Germany to *fall* by 3 million.)

    UK pop 64.8 million in 2015.

    Thus UK pop increase projected = 20.3 million;

    Which is actually 7.1 million *more* than the growth for the whole of Europe, because we increase as the others decrease.

    “Europop2013 projections indicate that the EU-28’s population will grow overall by 2.6 % between 2014 and 2080, with the number of inhabitants increasing by 13.2 million persons. The EU’s population is projected to peak around 2050, reaching 526 million persons, an increase of 18.7 million (or 3.7 %) compared with the situation in 2014. The size of the EU’s population is then projected to fall to reach a low of 519.8 million by 2075, after which a modest increase is projected through to 2080, when the EU-28’s population is projected to still be around 520 million persons (see Figure 1 and Table 1).”l

    “By 2080, Germany is likely to be the third largest EU Member State in population terms, behind the United Kingdom and France”

    “For almost half of the EU Member States, the projections for 2050 indicate that population numbers will be lower than in 2014, with Germany (74.7 million) and Poland (34.8 million) both recording decreases of more than 3 million inhabitants. By the end of the time horizon in 2080, Europop2013 projections indicate that the EU Member States with the largest populations will be the United Kingdom (85.1 million inhabitants), France (78.8 million), Germany (65.4 million), Italy (65.1 million) and Spain (47.6 million).”

    Notice how they left country size and pop density out of that bit? 😦

    And, of course, everybody still calls for us to
    keep taking more, or risk being called racists or social pariahs: one side ‘for the good of The Economy’, the other because they think everybody should just be able to go wherever they like, and the place will magically expand to take them, and that little, crowded, countries should ‘pull their weight’ by accepting at least the same numbers of refugees as big countries, that, until recently, economists were dooming for their *falling* populations!

    So it’s a no win. As a lifelong nature and British countryside lover, I can’t bear to see it all destroyed, but it will be, if nobody brings our kamikaze leaders to their senses.

    Because we’ve imported a lot of young people of child bearing age, our population that was just beginning to see the possibility of becoming sustainable, is now going to be difficult to accommodate, even without the continuous import of 300,000 (and rising) more every year. I can’t see how there can fail to be some catastrophic collapse: maybe sooner than anyone thinks.

    But you look at the Eurostat figures, and you see there is no natural reason for all EU pop growth to be funnelled into the UK: we’re deliberately causing it, because we can’t bear to think of house prices falling and companies not making ever increasing profits.

    So: Is anyone actually going to try and reset the balance at all?: Nope: even the ‘Greens’ want growth and more housebuilding, and won’t hear of turning anyone away who wants to live here. The ‘left’ cannot bear the thought of checking to see if there’s room before they pile into somewhere, and the ‘right’ cannot bear the thought of suggesting to entrepreneurs that they ought to set up businesses where they’re really needed, instead of where they can extract the most profit by gambling on continually rising prices.

    Despite all this, my instinct is ‘better the Devil you know’, but I’ve been sickened by this whole referendum debacle, and I cannot escape the conclusion that the physical, beautiful, country I loved, is doomed: and doomed entirely from ignorance and greed.

  3. Alan Lee Parker

    Well said. It’s a shame none of
    the politicians seem to give much thought to the environment. Better attitudes from people and a respect for mother nature would be the only solution to the ultimate destruction of this planet. Money can’t buy everything!

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