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Will #Brexit hurt our approach to the environment?


With around a month to go now before Britain’s EU referendum, the rhetoric on both sides of the debate is really ratcheting up – and it seems there’s no issue that the Remain and Brexit camps won’t use to bolster their respective arguments, including the environment.

We’ve posted about the potential outcomes a Brexit might result in before, but I wanted to express some personal views this time.

Firstly, I think it’s wholly wrong of the Remain campaign to suggest that a Britain outside the EU would some how return to being the ‘dirty man of Europe’.

Things have moved on a lot since the 1970s and the environmental movement in Britain is now much more widespread and deep-rooted than ever – the notion that a post-Brexit government would seek to dismantle the many environmental protections we now take for granted, in the face of that environmental movement, is, in my view, wildly overstating reality.

Secondly, however, I also think it’s wrong of the Leave campaign to insist that the EU alone, and not Britain with it, is responsible for the crippling ‘green tape’ that can strangle some businesses.

I’ve seen with my own eyes how EU directives get ‘gold-plated’ when transposed into domestic law. We have a tendency to take a very strict and inflexible interpretation of EU ruses, when other member states don’t.

What we’re seeing in the Brexit debate are extreme positions being articulated by both sides when, in reality, the truth is hidden somewhere in between.

And, for me, that truth looks something like this:

In its attempts to foster ever closer union, the EU makes the mistake at times of attempting to foist a ‘one-size-fits-all’ energy and environmental solution onto its 28 member states, when we are, in fact, all very different.

For instance, the geology, geography and topography of Britain is very different to that found in, say, Austria. Our economies are very different, Austria’s GDP being $382 billion compared to Britain’s more industrial economy with a GDP of $2.4 trillion. And so are the relative sizes of our populations – Austria’s being 8.4 million and ours 64.1 million.

So when it comes to energy and climate policy, for instance, it’s easy for Austria to source more of its electricity from renewables because it has the right conditions for lots of large scale hydropower. It doesn’t have the same industrial base demanding constant supplies of power and it has significantly fewer citizens to cater for too.

Forcing all member states to adopt the same approach clearly isn’t going to work because of the very different conditions that are encountered in each of them.

The EU approach is also too prescriptive and, overall, tends to feel more output than outcome driven.

The smarter alternative, of course, would be for the EU to create a common purpose and set the direction of travel, but for individual member states to plot their own course in order to get there.

Instead of insisting on how member states achieve common targets, the EU should allow them the flexibility to decide for themselves how those targets will be met.

It’s the ‘what’ we achieve (sharp CO2 reductions, for instance) that counts most, not the ‘how’ we achieve it (nuclear, natural gas and renewables vs just nuclear and renewables vs just nuclear or just renewables).

The reality is that the EU approach is unlikely to change substantially whether or not Britain votes to Remain or Leave.

We may have had some successes – notably getting the European Commission to adjust its circular economy proposals and to agreeing to low-carbon targets that mean Britain and other EU members are free to determine for themselves what their energy mix should look like – but is that enough?

At least outside the EU, Britain could decide for itself what its environmental priorities ought to be, and how it should respond to the unique challenges it faces.

There would be nothing to prevent us from adopting materially similar policies to the EU, or even implementing our own version of EU directives – both of which would no doubt assist us in our efforts to continue trading with the EU bloc.

I doubt a Britain outside the EU would have any less of a voice on important environmental issues either. There are 196 countries in the world, of which only 28 are EU member states: those 168 other countries were all able to participate in the global COP21 climate talks in Paris 2015, for instance, despite not being in the EU.

And Government would have greater flexibility to extend support to energy and environmental schemes without falling foul of state aid rules whilst also being able to adjust things like VAT in order to incentivise ‘green’ purchases (for instance, VAT on renewably sourced gas and electricity could be reduced to zero in order to boost uptake and encourage more renewable energy deployment – a tax break for the end-user rather than a subsidy).

There may be lots of other reasons to stay in the EU, but ensuring that Britain maintains its voice in the environmental and climate change debate, and that it continues to value environmental safeguards, really isn’t one of them.

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