As the Referendum of 23 June on the future of Britain's EU membership is nearing, Britain's leadeing conservation NGOs informed the political dialogue with a much needed environmental impact assessment of the pros and cons of each vote. On March 8, WWF UK, RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts issued the report "The potential policy and environmental consequences for the UK of a departure from the European Union".
The report has concluded that "on balance, Britain’s membership of the EU has delivered benefits for our environment – such as reduced air and water pollution, reduced carbon emissions, increased recycling, clean beaches and protected areas for rare species and habitats - that would be hard to replicate in the event of the UK leaving. The report also goes on to highlight the risks and uncertainty associated with likely exit scenarios."
According to the report:
"Membership of the EU has had, and continues to have, a significant positive impact on environmental outcomes in the UK as well as other parts of Europe, with cleaner air, water and oceans than otherwise could be expected.
This is because of a range of legislative, funding and other measures with the potential to work in combination. EU environmental legislation is backed up by a hard legal implementation requirement of a kind that is rarely present in international agreements on the environment; and which is more convincingly long-lasting, and less subject to policy risk, than national legislation.
Complete departure from the EU (Brexit Scenario 2) would create identifiable and substantial risks to future UK environmental ambition and outcomes. It would exclude the UK from decision making on EU law and there would be a risk that environmental standards could be lowered to seek competitive advantage outside the EU trading bloc.
Departure from the EU whilst retaining membership of the EEA (Brexit Scenario 1) would lessen these risks, as most EU environmental law would continue to apply. However, there would be significant concerns related to nature conservation and bathing water, as well as to agriculture and fisheries policy. In addition, the UK would lose most of its influence on EU environment and climate policies.
Under both exit scenarios, significant tensions would be created in relation to areas of policymaking where responsibility is devolved to the governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, but where a broadly similar approach has been required as a result of EU membership, including environmental protection, agriculture, and fisheries.
The uncertainty and period of prolonged negotiation on many fronts caused by a UK decision to leave would, itself, create significant risks both for environmental standards and for the green investment needed to improve the UK’s long-term environmental performance."
WWF-UK’s Director of Advocacy Trevor Hutchings said: “As we debate the UK’s future relationship with the EU, it is important that both camps – IN and OUT - consider the impact on the environment. In particular we want to hear how they would set about reversing the decline in species and habitats upon which our economic and social wellbeing depend. Not everything that comes from Europe has been good for the natural world, but on balance membership of the EU has delivered benefits for our environment that would be hard to replicate in the event of the UK leaving. Whatever the UK’s future relationship with the EU it must not be at the expense of our natural resources, wildlife and wild places.”
The call comes as a new analysis prepared by the independent Institute for European Environmental Policy, illustrates how EU measures have safeguarded birds such as the bittern, nightjar and Dartford warbler, protected habitats that are essential for butterflies and bees and have delivered cleaner air, rivers and beaches.
The report is also clear that there should be changes and improvements. The Common Agricultural Policy has driven an intensification of agricultural systems across the EU, which has directly driven wildlife declines. Conservation groups have been campaigning for many years for reforms of the CAP so that it prioritises the protection and enhancement of public goods (such as wildlife), and not just intensification of production.