It's become a hot topic in the campaign ahead of this month's EU referendum.
Pro-EU campaigners say that many of the protections afforded to the environment are a direct result of the common legislative framework the EU provides.
“EU membership underpins many crucial environmental protections in the UK, while amplifying our voice in the world on vital issues like cutting global emissions,” Remain campaigner David Cameron said last week.
Yet those who advocate Brexit believe that the UK is “losing its voice” in the negotiation of key policies, essentially losing its place at the negotiating table.
In a report commissioned by pro-EU campaigners Friends of the Earth, environment expert Dr Charlotte Burns of the University of York wrote last year that Britain’s membership had had “a revolutionary effect” on environmental policy.
“Today many of the most important UK environmental policies and priorities are those that have emerged via the EU,” she wrote.
Dr Burns highlighted the so-called ‘Europeanisation’ of the UK’s environmental policies, which has seen the adoption of strict new limits on emissions, and changed approaches to sewage treatment and recycling.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Worldwide Wildlife Fund have both shared their support for remaining in the EU.
They say that “years of uncertainty” would follow a vote to leave, casting serious doubts over wildlife protection policies.
The groups used an intervention in the referendum campaign to argue that flora and fauna cross national borders and so require supranational policy.
There are concerns that should Britain vote to leave, specific EU directives around birds and habitats will be wiped entirely.
And one of the more bizarre debates in the campaign has been the EU’s specific efforts to improve the health of bees.
EU restrictions on pesticides have protected the species’ habitats, despite the UK government lifting a ban putting bees at risk.
Brexit ‘would make the environment suffer’
Yet if Brexit does occur, it is the way in which it unfolds that will determine the effect on the environment, Friends of the Earth says.
And it is not necessarily the case that current environmental policy would be wiped entirely upon Brexit.
“If the UK joined the European Economic Area (EEA), like Norway, many of the protections we have now would remain in place,” Sam Lowe, the group’s EU campaigner told The Huffington Post UK.
“In practice this would not be scrapping these laws, but if the government wanted to it could.
“At the moment government policy reflects these directives. But that could change,” Lowe warned.
What has the EU achieved for the environment?
- A substantial decline in most industrial sources of air and water pollution
- Improving urban air quality and reducing water pollution
- Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fuelling the growth in renewable sources of energy
- Improving the protection of species and habitats
- Transforming waste management, including introducing recycling in communities
- Controls of polluting substances, such as pesticides
Source: Institute for European Environmental Policy.
An Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) report analysing the effect of a possible Brexit found that should the UK remain in the EEA, it would be bound by most of the EU’s environmental laws.
It stated that should the UK choose to be entirely outside the EU, it would represent “a much more decisive step away from [current] obligations”.
Regardless of the form of Brexit, the IEEP report is clear in its assertion that should it occur, the British environment will suffer.
“It is likely that a potential UK departure from the EU would leave the British environment in a more vulnerable and uncertain position than if it were to remain as a member of the EU,” it said.
‘Losing Britain’s voice’
However, George Eustice, the current Minister for Farming, Food and Marine Environment, wrote in a recent newspaper column that Britain in the EU is “losing its voice” when it comes to wildlife conventions.
“EU supporters make glib claims about having a seat at the table but when it comes to wildlife conventions we are losing our voice. Since the Lisbon Treaty it is now, extraordinarily, unlawful for the UK to speak and vote without first getting permission from the European Commission,” he wrote in the London Evening Standard.
In the column, he predicted sweeping changes to the UK’s voting rights on fisheries policies when a convention on endangered species meets later this year.
And he said that as environmental challenges are not limited to Europe, the UK should be free to build global coalitions on its own back.
“The most pressing environmental challenges today are global. The world needs an independent UK and we should be free to build coalitions around the world. It’s time to leave the EU and regain our seat at the table,” he wrote.
And Eustice is not alone in reservations about the EU’s role in environmental policies.
Ex-minister Peter Lilley, who served on Parliament’s environmental audit committee, has rubbished claims that Britain’s membership of the EU has forced the UK to be more environmentally friendly.
And he countered a recent report by a group of fellow MPs which suggested Britain had even influenced the EU to lead the world on climate change.
"If the EU has been making Britain more environmentally friendly, it is hard to argue that Britain has been making the EU take the lead in the environmentalism globally," he said in April. "We are either [a] leader or follower, not both."
The #EURef environment effect in brief
If we Remain:
- Existing EU directives remain in place
- British laws are required to reflect EU policy
- Britain retains its decision-making role in environmental policy via the Council of the EU, and has directly-elected representatives in the European Parliament
- Britain is represented at global level by the EU
If we Leave and join the European Economic Area:
- British laws must reflect EU policies if the UK is to trade with EU member states
- Britain will no longer have a decision-making role
- Britain would represent itself at global level
If we Leave entirely:
- British laws no longer need reflect EU policy