David Cameron’s speech on the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU could prove to be a dark moment for this country’s natural environment.
Frustrated at their failure to cut what some ministers see as unnecessary environmental legislation through their red tape challenge (because many of the laws in question originate from Brussels), they now have an opportunity to turn their attention to what they see as the root of the problem through the opening that has emerged in the wake of prime minister’s EU speech.
Cameron’s carefully worded intervention expressed the view that “we need to examine whether the balance is right in so many areas where the European Union has legislated including on the environment.”
This was no throwaway line, neither was his demand that “nothing should be off the table”. Some ministers see EU laws, including the Habitats directive and the Water Framework directive, as constraints to “growth” and believe they need to be weakened in order to promote economic activity.
But environmental policies and laws are essential for maintaining people’s wellbeing, especially in a crowded country like ours.
Anyone concerned about the state of the environment we all rely on should be truly alarmed by Cameron’s intervention. More than 80% of our environmental legislation originates from the EU and it is very clear that plans to bring such laws under UK control are not for making them stronger. Recent remarks from George Osborne confirm the point.
In his 2011 autumn statement Osborne launched a bitter attack on the EU Habitats directive, claiming that it placed “ridiculous costs on British businesses“. This legislation does a good job in protecting famous natural assets, such as the Cairngorm mountains, our finest chalk streams, the north Norfolk coast and the Dorset Heathlands, as well as a wide range of rare and vulnerable species, from eagles and dormice to dolphins and wild cats. He insisted that a review of the directive was undertaken to assess exactly how much economic damage it was doing. The result was evidently not what he expected.
The review Osborne demanded, and which was conducted by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, found that his hysterical claim was simply not true, and that in more than 99% of cases where a project was affected there was no objection from the statutory bodies concerned.
And neither, according to this most comprehensive study ever done, is the UK’s implementing “gold-plated” legislation. The deeply flawed thinking that led to the attack on the Habitats directive could not only lead to environmental harm but also serious economic damage. An example can be seen in the likely consequences of any attempt to weaken UK requirements under the Water Framework directive.
This legislation aims to protect and enhance the water environment, and thereby bring benefits not only for drinking water, fishing, wildlife and recreation, but also indirectly for flood risk reduction. It has demanding targets, but if we meet them we will be all the better off for having done so, including economically. Evidence to support that view comes from the government’s own National Ecosystem assessment.
This comprehensive survey of the UK’s natural environment estimated, for example, that the benefits derived from improved river water quality were about £1.1bn a year, while the amenity value of inland wetlands added a further £1.3bn. The numbers will be bigger still as the climate changes and flood risk increases. The idea that legislation to improve the water environment is an economic drain could not be more wrong. And then there is the impact on investor confidence.
The highly regulated private companies that supply water in England and Wales depend on capital being invested to pay for improvements in the infrastructure needed to meet our rising demand for clean water. These investors welcome clear regulation, because it gives certainty and reduces risk.
By saying that environmental laws are on the table for renegotiation the relative certainty that investors until recently enjoyed has suddenly disappeared. This could jeopardise the many billions of pounds worth of investment needed in the years ahead to modernise our creaking water supply and sewage systems.
Precious natural places under threat of development, sewage-blighted beaches, declining salmon and trout populations, health-damaging air pollution – are these really the hallmarks of a modern competitive economy?
While Europe is a complex equation, one thing is for sure: our lives are healthier and better as a result of the EU’s high environmental standards.
Cameron’s apparent contempt for environmental goals is hardly a natural Conservative agenda, or one that will win him much public support. He should remember that many of his own MPs were vocal in the face of plans to privatise our forests and strip back planning controls.
There may be wind in the sails of the Eurosceptics now, but as a long-serving environmentalist I can only hope it is a gust that capsises them. If it does at least they’ll be thankful the water’s clean.
• Tony Juniper is the author of What has nature ever done for us?, published this month by Profile Books
“He made clear he wanted repeal of the current working hours directive, a clawing back of EU powers in fields of environment, social affairs and crime, fewer EU commissioners and protection of UK rights in the single market as the eurozone members strengthen their co-operation.” link
‘Even the darkest sceptic has to admit that when it comes to environment policy it makes sense for states to cooperate and do things in common.’ – Dr Caroline Jackson MEP, 2003
Water, food, oxygen, energy and much more… the environment meets so many of our vital needs. We owe it to ourselves to protect our environment and to use it carefully; our health and our very survival are at stake. Since the early 1970s Europe has been firmly committed to the environment: protection of air and water quality, conservation of resources and protection of biodiversity, waste management and control of activities which have an adverse environmental impact are just some of the areas in which the EU is active, at both Member State level and internationally. Whether through corrective measures relating to specific environmental problems or cross-cutting measures integrated within other policy areas, European environment policy, based on Article 174 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, aims to ensure the sustainable development of the European model of society.
- Tackling climate change
General framework policy, Kyoto protocol, Reduction of greenhouse emissions,, Energy, Transport, Enterprises, Agriculture, Innovation
- General provisions
Action programmes, Principles, Instruments, Application and control
- Sustainable development
Sustainable development strategy, Integration of environmental policy
- Waste management
Prevention and recycling of waste, Specific waste, Dangerous waste, Radioactive waste
- Air pollution
Air quality, Atmospheric pollutants, Transport, Industry
- Water protection and management
Water usage, Marine pollution, Inland waters, Discharge of substances
- Protection of nature and biodiversity
Biodiversity, Flora and fauna, Forests, Genetically modified organisms
- Soil protection
Management of specific soil types, Discharge of substances, Activities leading to specific risk
- Civil protection
Civil protection measures: their mechanism and financing, Environmental accidents
- Noise pollution
Noise management, Specific sources of noise pollution
- Environment: cooperation with third countries
Enlargement, Cooperation with third countries, International conventions
Civitas. EU FACTS
Environmental policy is one of the most important and far-reaching areas of EU legislation. The EU is the leading authority in this area with up to 80% of UK legislation on environmental affairs estimated to come from the EU. However, critics of EU environmental policy question the efficiency of some measures, arguing that the cost of complying with these regulations leaves European business uncompetitive, especially in the face of increased competition from countries such as China and India, which do not have such strict environmental rules.
Environmental policy is a relatively recent EU policy area. Environmental protection was not mentioned in the Treaty of Rome (1958), and it was not until 1972 that the first of a series of European Environmental Action Plans (EAP) was launched. The Single European Act (1986) marked the beginning of a more prominent role for environmental protection in EU policy-making, introducing the principal that environmental protection should be considered in all new Community legislation. EU environmental policy was substantially expanded by the Treaties of Maastricht (1992) andAmsterdam (1997), which made sustainable development one of the EU’s central objectives. Sustainable development also forms a key part of theEurope 2020 Strategy, which underpins all EU policy regarding the single market. The Lisbon Treaty (2007) reiterated the objective of sustainable development and, in 2010, the EU renewed a number of environmental Directives to ensure they comply with the Lisbon Treaty.
What does EU environmental policy do?
The EU has passed legislation aimed at improving the quality of water, tackling air and noise pollution, assuring the safety of chemicals, setting standards for waste disposal and protecting the EU’s native wildlife and plants. The current EAP, which runs from 2002-2012, identifies four environmental areas for priority action: climate change; nature and biodiversity; environment, health and quality of life, and natural resources and waste (the EU Landfill Directive requires states to reduce landfill waste by 50% from 1995 levels by 2013 and 65% by 2020).
The EU has also taken a leading role in global environmental negotiations, especially the signing of the Kyoto Protocol. At the 1997 UN Conference on Climate Change in Kyoto, Japan, the EU committed its members to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 8% by 2012, compared to levels in 1990. The 2008 EU Climate Change package established the ’20:20:20 targets’ for 20% of energy to come from renewable sources and committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20% by 2020.
EU measures to meet such commitments include the Emisions Trading System (ETS), created in 2002. This system limits the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) firms can produce in 6 key industries: energy, steel, cement, glass, brick-making, and paper/cardboard production. The 2008 EU Climate Change package added aircraft emissions to the ETS from 2012. The EU also supports reducing CO2 emissions through Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) to bury emissions so they don’t enter the atmosphere. Finally, in 2008 the EU reasserted a commitment to reduce the amount of CO2 emitted from new cars and to fine manufacturers for each gram of CO2 they produce over the target (€20 in 2012, €95 in 2015). In 2009, the European Court of Justice ruled that EU states can set their own limits on CO2 emissions (the EU Commission can’t enforce common quotas). However, the Commission said it will appeal against this ruling because it could compromise the ETS. Poland, Estonia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania all oppose imposing EU-wide CO2 quotas.
The EU’s political leaders have agreed that 20% of the EU’s energy should come from renewable sources by 2020, for example 10% of road fuel is to be composed of biofuel by 2020. However, in the UK, the 2008 Gallaher report criticised this suggesting that the increased use of biofuels might be contributing to rises in global food prices. The Commission launched an investigation into this link between biofuels and rising prices in April 2008. They have since proposed that biofuels from crops should be limited to 5% of this target. Controversially, the EU’s targets are legally binding and theoretically enforceable in the ECJ (in 2007 the Commission proposed that environmental ‘crimes’ be punished by equal penalties across the EU). The EU took part in the 2010 UN Climate Change Summit, in Cancun, which succeeded in overcoming some of the divisions arising from the previous summit, in Copenhagen. All major economies pledged to reduce emissions, although no legally binding decision was reached.
Facts and Figures
- The EU produces around 22% of global greenhouse gas emissions and creates over two billion tonnes of rubbish a year.
- The EU endorsed energy efficient light bulbs by banning 100w incandescent light bulbs in 2009.
- The cost of compliance with EU environmental legislation for the ten new member states has been estimated at €100 billion. EU funding only covers 4% of this sum.
- 13 of the 27 EU member states are likely to meet their 2020 national targets for renewable energy capacity; however in 2010, some countries, including Italy, Belgium and Bulgaria are not on course to meet their targets.
- The threat to the environment is global and should be tackled on an international scale – the EU plays an important role in setting this agenda.
- The EU’s commitment to environmental protection encourages other countries to adopt similar measures.
- Environmental policy is one area where there is a great deal of public support for action at a Europe-wide level.
- The cost of EU environmental regulation can undermine the competitiveness of EU businesses.
- The amount of greenhouse gas emissions that firms are allowed to produce under the ETS has been set too high, so firms have little incentive to cut their emissions to meet the EU’s wider targets.
Proposal for a new EU Environment Action Programme to 2020
The European Commission has proposed a new Environment Action Programme for the EU. Entitled “Living well, within the limits of our planet”, it will guide environment policy up to 2020. The proposal aims to enhance Europe’s ecological resilience and transform the EU into an inclusive and sustainable green economy.
Despite progress in some areas, Europe continues to face significant environmental challenges, as well as opportunities to make the environment more resilient to risks and change.
Protecting natural capital, encouraging more resource efficiency and accelerating the transition to the low-carbon economy are key features of the programme, which also seeks to tackle environmental causes of disease. The results should help stimulate sustainable growth and create new jobs to set the Union on a path to becoming a better and healthier place to live.
|Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: “The new Action Programme sets out the path for Europe to become a place where people live in a safe and healthy natural environment, where economic progress is based on a sustainable, green economy and where ecological resilience has been achieved.“
|Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said: “We cannot wait until the economic crisis is over before we tackle the resources, environmental and climate crises. We must address all these at the same time and so include climate and environmental concerns into all our policies. This strategy gives businesses and politicians the long-term view we very much need for making the transition to a sustainable, low-carbon society in Europe.”
The Commission’s proposal will be considered through the ordinary legislative procedure by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. Once agreed, the new EAP will become EU law.