THE BLOG

Leaving the EU Risks Dirty Beaches in Britain, Endangering Our Wildlife and Scuppering the Fight Against Climate Change

03/02/2016 09:22 GMT | Updated 02/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Every summer, at the first hint of blue skies and sunshine, the beach in my constituency in Brighton fills up with people who have travelled from far and wide to enjoy the beautiful seaside. The scenes on those days are replicated across the country. We are people who, despite the inconsistent weather and chilly water - like to be beside the sea.

It's easy to forget that bathing in British waters was a hazardous activity not so long ago and that it was action from the EU which cleaned up the coastline.

In the 1970s sewage blighted the beaches of these islands. In 1976 the European Union passed the Bathing Water Directive which compelled countries to clean up their act - and thus decrease the pollution levels in the seas which we all share. The progress was slow at first but the results are now clear for all to see. By 1990 just over a quarter of our beaches met water quality standards. Now, with even stricter rules passed by the EU in 2006, over 97% of England's bathing waters have met the new minimum standard. Our beaches and seas are cleaner, and coastal economies have been given a boost, because of EU regulations.

It's also thanks to EU rules that some of the most precious wildlife in the UK has been protected. At the northern edge of my constituency are the South Downs - a splendid chalk hill landscape extending from Eastbourne to Winchester. On those hills, and across the UK's countryside, species have been protected by a variety of EU environmental laws. The fate of British birds is a case in point. Analysis by the RSPB, BirdLife International and Durham University reveals that the most consistent single factor in a species' fate is whether it has the highest level of protection under the EU's Birds Directive or not. Some of the successes have been astonishing. Red kite numbers are up 2054%, cranes are up 1660% and marsh harriers are up 998%. And it's not just birds that are safeguarded under EU rules - so are bats, newts, otters, lizards and, crucially, the habitats in which they live.

Protecting nature is good for all of us, not only because of the inherent value of looking after the beautiful British countryside. It's also beneficial for our mental health and fundamental to a well-functioning economy.

Of course it is the threat of catastrophic climate change which hangs over everything else we're doing to protect our environment. Surely there is no better reason to work with our neighbours than the need to tackle this complex cross-border catastrophe in our midst. If we join forces with other countries, strengthening the EU-wide rules on carbon emissions that are already in place, then we have a chance of keeping future generations safe. Going it alone simply is an option for a challenge of this magnitude.

It's impossible to know exactly what would happen if Britain left the EU but, when it comes to protecting our environment, the Government has dropped some heavy hints. Ministers have tried their best to water down air pollution rules, the Chancellor has said that EU nature laws place 'ridiculous costs' on British firms and, most worryingly of all, the Government has been vigorously stripping away support for clean energy and renewable technology in the UK. The EU isn't perfect, and ongoing reform to strengthen environmental rules is clearly needed, but the idea of leaving our precious environment in the hands of the current set of Ministers fills me with terror.

Ultimately it's obvious that being part of the EU makes sense when it comes to protecting our environment. Pollution and environmental degradation don't respect national border - so we clearly need cross-border solutions to the challenges we face.

I'm pleased to be part of Environmentalists for Europe which launches today. I firmly believe that Britain should remain a member of the EU and that those of us who care about the environment should be working with like-minded colleagues across the continent to defend and add to the cross-border protections we have in place.

Caroline Lucas is the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion