BREXIT MEANS BREXIT MEANS…?
One week ago UK Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 of the European Union, beginning the process of divorce therefrom. Over the past year or so we have heard extensive forecasts, speculations and downright lies concerning what will happen in the future for UK citizens. Whilst what will actually turn out to be the case remains unclear, the future is even less certain for the state of the UK’s environment.
Many (including myself*) were quick to assume leaving the EU would mean nothing good for the environment. After all, there are many examples of the EU being a shining beacon of hope in terms of action on climate change, whilst the UK has been burning fossil fuels longer than any other country in the world. Bearing in mind most pollutants, including CO2, remain in the atmosphere for at least 100 years, continually contributing to the greenhouse effect, there is no doubt we have a responsibility in this country to step down our emissions significantly. What would be a tragedy is if the UK were to break free of the EU and return to its polluting old ways. This is certainly what UKIP would want.
Here I would like to briefly analyse to what extent I may or may not have been unfair in my hasty declaration of an ‘independent’ UK as a newly unhinged polluter, earning a swift return of the nickname ‘the dirty man of Europe’. Further I would like to motivate the possibility of turning the now inevitable Brexit from environmental disaster to a big step forward.
DID THE EU MAKE US ANY GREENER?
The UK originally earned the nickname of dirty man when joining the EU in 1973, for the joint reasons that it failed to meet the pollution control regulations other member states obeyed and because the prevailing winds from the Atlantic tend to blow British air toward the continent and Scandinavia, leading to numerous cases of acid rain in Norway. In addition, the UK was known for disobeying regulations on pesticide use.
It may be hard to believe now but in the 1980’s the UK had just 27 coastal areas which were designated as ‘bathing waters’, the remainder being too polluted for swimming to be recommended. Craig Bennett, director of Friends of the Earth, has recalled,
“As a boy, trips to the coast were often spoiled by filthy beaches and sewage-filled seas.”
Today, however, following formal proceedings of the European Commission, the number has reached 632, meaning there are plenty of beaches where children can play safely and where wildlife can flourish. The EU similarly enforces laws on clean rivers and on conservation.
In more recent times, the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive is making progress in providing increased levels of clean electricity to the continent by 2020, aiming for the target of a 20% share. Whilst there are many debates about which forms of electricity generation provide the best means of sustaining future society (which I leave for another day), most environmentalists would argue an increase in renewable power sources is for sure a good thing.
Not everything EU directed is peachy, however, and there are multiple examples where regulations have led to vast wastage and even direct environmental damage. A clear example is provided by the Common Fisheries Policy. This well-intentioned policy seeks to conserve fish stocks in the seas surrounding Europe. The issue lies in the fact that imposing quotas on particular fish stocks often leads to the mass depositing of dead, unwanted fish which lie outside the quota. I can think of no argument in which the mass killing and disposal of animals in this way may be deemed moral, and in addition, the practice goes precisely against the goal of conservation which it seeks to address.
Similar things can be said about the Common Agricultural Policy, which Greenpeace describes as
“incentivis[ing] farmers to keep land fallow without allowing it to re-wild, so the land is both unproductive and low in biodiversity.”
In effect, the CAP maximises yields at the expense of damaging the environment. Another example, as I have referred to in a previous piece, of business trumping concerns of climate change.
Again along the agricultural vein, the EU is largely held as being against genetically modified crops. Whilst most environmentalists would agree with this position, this is yet another issue which divides the movement. Plenty of scientists argue there are in fact very few risks associated with the majority of GM crops and it may even be the case that they provide the key to solving world hunger. This argument is of course dubious, and relies on a degree of altruism from mega-corporations like Monsanto which hasn’t seemed particularly present so far…
IS THE FUTURE BRIGHT? OR SMOGGY GREY?
It seems that, as with the impact of Brexit on UK citizens, the outcome isn’t entirely certain, but it is difficult not to feel that it isn’t going to turn out for the best. The UK has one particular environmental issue which is likely to go on unmentioned in the face of a departure from the EU: that is, the capital’s horrific air pollution levels. As is often commented, the air pollution in parts of London reached the yearly recommended limit in the first five days of 2017, with the UN declaring a state of crisis. When this happens in a city such as Paris, the majority of emissions are banned for a few days and the situation clears up somewhat. But this kind of thing would never happen in the homeland of capitalism and therefore the pollution continues to increase and increase. The EU has recently begun to crack down on air pollution, and it is likely that these changes will go largely unnoticed in the UK during the departure procedure. This all comes at a time when, according to RSPB, over half of the UK’s native species are in decline, with 15% facing extinction. The future doesn’t look particularly bright.
Nonetheless, this is a blog about showing positivity in the face of climate crisis. Whilst all may seem pretty smoggy, the future is not set in stone and there are certainly plenty of things to be positive about.
Much was said during the referendum campaign about the UK becoming more like Norway upon exiting the European Union. Theresa May has confirmed that this will not be the case in terms of membership of the EEA, but perhaps there are other ways in which the comparison could be valid. Norway is on track to becoming the world’s first carbon neutral country by 2030.** The country aims to do this through various environmental protections put in place outside of the EU, along with investment in electrified roads and renewable energy sources. There is similar potential in the UK, due to the country’s geography. For example, a tidal power project in the Bristol channel would have plenty of electricity demand-meeting potential. Projects like this will only go ahead if there is pressure on governments to invest in such alternatives to fossil fuels, rather than continuing with fossil fuel subsidies and out-dated nuclear projects like Hinkley Point C.
Similarly, in order for the government to be motivated to preserve the British countryside, it is imperative that the public show enthusiasm for it. If no one goes on holiday to a particular part of the coast, there is little opposition to its degradation for purposes such as industry.
In order to reduce inner-city air pollution, it is imperative that fewer people drive cars. Since moving to London, many people have asked me if I dare to cycle on the busy streets. My response is that the cycle superhighways make this not just straightforward and safe, but also fairly pleasant. Large cities such as Manchester are also developing excellent, well-defined cycle routes. If you live in a particularly polluted city, there are now plenty of life-saving breathing masks on the market. It is not only cyclists who benefit from these, but pedestrians too. Perhaps by increasing the number of masks worn on the street, there will be mounting pressure on councils and government to do something serious about air pollution.
Wearing an air pollution mask is not just better for your health. It is also a political statement. If enough of us wear these on the streets of the UK’s major cities, not only will others question how good an idea it is to breathe in the polluted air, but hopefully those in power will be forced into action and make a step towards a green Brexit.
* : I shared this article on Facebook on 24th June 2016.
** : Although it does sell oil across the world, which in my opinion should negate this somewhat.