EU membership has boosted UK green policy and accelerated climate action, MPs say

UK environmental policy has benefited from multilateral negotiations with other EU Member States in areas such as biodiversity, air quality and water pollution, according to a major new report from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

The EAC report, released today (19 April), is the result of a public enquiry launched last November, which sought to investigate the merits and drawbacks of determining environmental policy at an EU level for the UK, ahead of the crucial in/out referendum on 23 June.

Specifically, the cross-party Committee – whose members include Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, London Mayor front-runner Zac Goldsmith and Environment Minister Rory Stewart – wanted to hear from sustainability professionals, industry experts, green groups and fellow politicians on the impact that EU green policies have had on UK businesses; and the role of the EU as an international negotiator on environmental issues.


The EAC’s conclusion: “The UK Government is broadly satisfied with EU environmental policy.” The Committee believes EU membership provides the UK with a platform to pursue its objectives on a global stage, while simultaneously fast-tracking environmental action domestically. And a ‘Brexit’ vote would significantly decrease the UK’s control over environmental matters and result in a “long and tortuous negotiation”.

EAC chair Mary Creagh said: “The UK has cleaned up its act since we were dubbed the ‘dirty man of Europe’ in the 70s. EU environmental laws have played a key part, and mean we bathe on cleaner beaches, drive more fuel-efficient cars and can hold Government to account on air pollution.

“Environmental problems don’t respect borders. When it comes to protecting our natural environment and dealing with global problems like climate change, the overwhelming evidence is that EU membership has improved the UK’s approach to the environment and ensured that the UK’s environment has been better protected.”

Paris Agreement

The 51-page report states that EU environmental policy development has been a “two-way street”. On the one hand, EU membership has given the UK a platform to pursue its environmental objectives internationally, and influence the strategic, long-term direction of policy. On the other hand, membership of the Union has ensured that environmental action in the UK has been taken on a faster timetable, and more thoroughly than would otherwise have been the case.

Ministers cite the UK’s influential role at the Paris climate change conference as evidence that remaining in Europe would strengthen the UK’s bargaining power in EU environmental legislation. 

Quoted in the report, the Under Secretary of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) Lord Nick Bourne said: “Obviously, climate change is an issue that does not stop at national boundaries, so it is very natural that we want to be part of a unit like Europe in terms of climate change negotiations to push the agenda forward… I think that it certainly helped being part of that very strong, united EU team.”

Circular economy

The report does note that it “failed to examine systematically the scope for devolving powers back to the UK if we remain within the EU”. It also stated that many EU environmental directives remain “open to interpretation and different approaches to implementation”. The EAC was told that ambiguity can occur because of the way the legislation has been written, with the Aldersgate Group – which responded to the enquiry – using EU waste legislation as an example.

The Aldersgate Group argued that “a key barrier for businesses wanting to improve their resource efficiency and make greater use of secondary materials is that these materials are often categorised as waste too early.” But they added that “the EU is addressing this issue in its circular economy package, where it is proposing changes to end-of-waste rules and the introduction of new standards and innovation funding to incentivise a greater use of secondary materials.”

Green group Friends of the Earth – which also provided evidence for the EAC’s investigation – believes this resulting report provides further evidence that membership of the EU has benefited the UK environment.

Campaigner Sam Lowe said: “In a week where nations across the globe are coming together to sign the historic Paris treaty and commit to tackling climate change, the need to collaborate with other countries on environmental issues has never been clearer.

“From climate change, to air pollution, to destruction of the natural world – this generation faces huge challenges which we cannot deal with alone. This report adds further evidence to the argument that Friends of the Earth has been making for months: The UK’s environment is best served working together with our European partners.”

‘Better protected’

James Thornton, chief executive of environmental law firm ClientEarth, described the report as the “sane and sensible opinion of right thinking parliamentarians”. 

Thornton said: “This report confirms and clarifies what we have said since the start of this referendum campaign. That leaving Europe simply opens up too many uncertainties and creates too many risks. The report is clear that environmental laws are now better thanks to the EU. It highlights the benefits of solving some of our environmental problems multilaterally not unilaterally. The UK’s membership of the EU has ensured that our environment is better protected and to leave the EU now would be utter folly.”

This EAC report comes a week after another investigation from neutral and independent UK-EU think tank ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’ concluded that the UK will be able to “excercise global leadership’ on climate change in a reformed EU. 

edie readers have also been quizzed on their stance on Britain’s EU membership, with the overwhelming majority of sustainability professionals and green groups agreeing that remaining IN the EU is crucial for our transition to a low-carbon future. Cast your own vote in our readers’ poll below and let us know your thoughts in the comments section at the end of this story.

Read the full EAC enquiry report here.

Luke Nicholls & George Ogleby

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