Is The UK Greener Because Of The EU? Not Really.

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Originally published on EnergyPost.

Those in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the European Union – although strangely not the UK government’s official campaign to remain in – are increasingly highlighting the contribution Brussels has made to protecting the natural environment. There is some justification for this, writes Professor Steffen Böhm of the University of Exeter, but in several key areas the influence of the EU on UK’s environmental policy has been negative rather than beneficial. Courtesy The Conversation.

During the 1970s and 80s Britain was famously disparaged as the “dirty man of Europe”, a polluting nation only persuaded and coerced into cleaning up its act by a succession of EU regulations. A recent report by the House of Commons environmental audit committee argued membership had been positive for the UK environment and noted that “none of the witnesses to our inquiry, even those who made criticisms, made an environmental case for leaving the European Union”.

I’m not here to argue for Brexit. But the EU’s green record is hardly unblemished. Indeed, in several key areas, European policies have slowed if not reversed the UK’s progress on environmental protection. And a major new EU-US trade agreement just around the corner could threaten much of what has been achieved.

  1. Climate change

The UK’s target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is significantly more ambitious than that required under current European rules. The EU’s pledge at last year’s Paris conference was modest enough that Britain had already effectively promised to cut emissions “at twice the rate of the EU as a whole”.

Given the privileged access that big energy and fossil fuel companies had to the EU’s top climate policy decision makers in the run-up to the Paris gathering, we shouldn’t be surprised by the underwhelming commitment. Should the UK vote to remain, its generous contribution towards Europe’s emissions pledge merely takes the pressure off other member states, resulting in no net global benefit. It’s a point raised in the Commons report itself.

  1. Biofuels are not green

The EU is a big supporter of biofuels such as biodiesel and bioethanol. The European Commission’s website describes these fuels – manufactured on an industrial scale in Europe from crops such as rape, sunflower, wheat and maize – as “a renewable alternative to fossil fuels in the transport sector, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve the EU’s security of supply”. The EU has set a target that by 2020, 10% of the transport fuel of every member comes from “renewable sources such as biofuels”.

Burning crops rather than petrol sounds like a good idea. However, these biofuels don’t actually do much to reduce overall emissions, once you take into account the extra land turned over to crop cultivation and the greenhouse gases used in fertilisers.

In addition, much of the biofuel used in the EU is imported from poorer countries, contributing to land grabbing in Africa and other places. Some experts have called this a new kind of biofuel-colonialism.

  1. Cars over clean air

The EU’s support for the automotive industry further tarnishes its green credentials. Although Europe is to be congratulated for introducing tough vehicle exhaust emissions limits over the years, the cosy relationship with manufacturers when it comes to enforcement is hardly laudable. For decades carmakers – with Europe’s tacit connivance – have benefited from loopholes in testing procedures allowing vehicles onto the road which emit substantially more “real world” CO2 emissions than the rigged test cycles suggest.

During the Volkswagen emissions scandal documents emerged revealing how leading member states including the UK had just months previously lobbied the commission to carry over these dodgy rules into new test procedures coming in to force in 2017. If VW hadn’t happened, those loopholes may still have been in place.

  1. TTIP trades protection for economic growth

But perhaps the greatest potential blot in the EU’s green copybook is its impending monster trade deal with the US. A series of bilateral trade negotiations, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership aims to boost the economies of the EU and the US by removing or reducing barriers to trade and foreign investment.

The political establishment and large businesses across Europe largely support TTIP, but critics distrust the secretive process by which it is being hammered out. They’re even more concerned that the deal will negatively affect small businesses and water down a swathe of hard-won social, safety, democratic – and, yes, environmental – protections in the name of economic growth.

Sometimes, as with diesel emissions, US environment standards exceed those of the EU. But it’s not the norm. With more than 60% of all processed foods in the US containing genetically-modified organisms, American negotiators will be pushing hard to overturn the EU’s current ban on GM food imports, not to mention Europe’s strict pesticide rules and its favouring of the precautionary principle when it comes to assessing potentially toxic chemical substances, as enshrined in the EU’s REACH regulations

A confidential draft of a “sustainable development chapter” of the TTIP negotiations, leaked in late 2015, contained vaguely phrased and non-binding commitments. This is merely paying lip service to the environment.

The EU does have much to be proud of when it comes to environmental and social idealism – and it certainly talks a good talk – but recent history tells us that when the chips are down economic imperatives and big, polluting, businesses take precedence. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, when the EU’s precursor organisation was founded in 1951, the environment wasn’t even mentioned. In those days it was known as the European Coal and Steel Community. What could be greener than that?

Steffen Böhm is Professor in Organisation and Sustainability at University of Exeter.

Reprinted with permission.

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22 thoughts on “Is The UK Greener Because Of The EU? Not Really.

  • The EU is undemocratic and utterly enthralled to neo-liberalism. From Cromarty to Marathon the people of Europe have been conned.

    • The UK is filled full of filthy populating right wing nut bags.

      • xenophobia much Joseph ?

        • Well, you’ve got the recovering progressive party formerly of Bliar. And the “centrist” party that sold out. And the Tories. And the UKIP. So compared to Europe, they sound pretty right-wing. It’s no wonder that English leftists have talked about voting for the Scottish National Party just to have a voice.

          • I’m not bothered about whether people are described as left or right wing, I’m bothered about the “filthy” part which is used to dehumanise them and present them as the enemy when in fact they are people just as you or I who have looked at a particular situation and decided to take a certain view.

          • And so what, does having a certain or different to your own viewpoint make them “filthy”, “nut bags” or is it possible that they are fairly old and stuck in their ways and want the situation to revert to how they thought it was in their youth.

          • I’m honestly surprised that the SNP doesn’t run candidates in England. They’d do pretty well.

        • As a proud Brit: he’s quite right.
          If you’d have read the Daily Telegraph comment columns before they canned them, you’d agree.

          • So because someone takes a different view on a situation you are comfortable with people being called “filthy”, “nut bags”. That says more about you than it does about them.

          • Regarding the errant adjective above, the pen is indeed mightier than the sword yet the consequences of climate change have the potential to render the phrase meaningless. We must not lose sight of this.

            If the last twelve months have taught us anything, it is that the Tories are willing to sacrifice the environment on the altar of the free market.

          • I agree that the Tories have rolled back a lot of good policies and that other parties would take a much better approach. One problem we have is with the first past the post system 25% of the population have decided which government we have. I personally would prefer a system whereby we have smaller parties that have to join together to form governments that better represent the population as a whole and I think naturally we would then have more environmentally sound policies.

          • I don’t care to comment on the filthy adjective – all I am saying is there are a lot of right wingers who are barely rational in this country – and when it comes to immigration, brexit or climate change denial we suffer because of their vocal and unpleasant view point
            I’m talking about people who genuinely believe black people are less intelligent and that the UK is undergoing ‘race replacement’ and will write that in a national newspaper

          • Agreed but you find those people in every country on earth not just the UK.

      • Unlike France? remind us how much support does the extreme right in France enjoy?

    • It’s a pity. The European Parliament has made efforts to be democratic, but it’s been suppressed by the bureaucrat-run Commission and Council.

    • and given renewable energy

  • The article largely condemns the EU but does not directly mention how the UK is different. So my take is:

    Point 1) UK gets around GHG by introducing much worse nuclear poisons. The UK would be much better off following the EU.

    Point 2) Yes biofuels are horrible. Yet, again, better than the UKs nuclear approach.

    Point 3) Does the UK even have a car industry? And if so what regulations do they impose on the ICE vehicles they make? Sounds like this point is just a complaint that should not have been included.

    Point 4) TTIP is horrible. So are frankenstein foods. How does the UK stand on these issues? The author does not make that clear. I would be surprised if the people in charge in the UK are any different than those in the EU and USA.

    What a strange article.

    • Yes, the UK has a car industry (even if its not British owned!). It is subject to EU regulations on emissions (even if they are fiddled…) and since it ships many cars to Europe, that would have to continue.

  • The point is – without the EU UK wouldn’t have the Climate Act or be working to EU wide CO2 and renewable targets.
    a brexit might lead to coal continuing and a complete stop on renewables, since the first post-brexit govt is current tories, without the moderates/light greens like Cameron

    • This is Cameron of the “.green crap” comment?

      • Yes… compared to the rest of them he is one of the good/green guys, even after that comment…
        Owen Paterson is being suggested for energy – his views straight out of GWPF

  • Peter Lilley is hardly an independent witness, he’s a hard-right Eurosceptic Tory. Britain has normally dragged its feet in EU discussions on emissions targets. For instance, it is currently trying, with Poland, to delay EU ratification of the Paris climate agreement, against France, Germany, the Commission and the European Parliament.

Comments are closed.