Critics will lament a 'Project Fear' approach, but for many green businesses Brexit is a genuinely scary prospect
And so it begins. The EU referendum vote will not be decided by environmental issues; that honour goes to months of ill-informed and ill-tempered arguments about immigration, sovereignty, and security - economic and physical - with the occasional nod to 'the type of country we want to be'. But like so many other areas, the failure of the environment and the green economy to play a central role in the Brexit debate will not stop it being hugely impacted by an eventual fallout that no one, not even noted soothsayer and strategic genius Ian Duncan Smith, can predict.
That is why an understandably risk-averse green business and green NGO community are almost completely united in their desire to stay in the EU. Last autumn I chaired the annual conference of the Environmental Industries Commission and asked a room of about 150 green business types whether they intended to vote for Brexit. Two gentlemen put their hands up. I asked how many people were undecided and awaiting the outcome of David Cameron's negotiations. A handful of people put their hands up. I asked if that meant the remainder were fully committed to 'Bremain'. A sea of hands shot up.
Sure, it was a straw poll before Cameron's negotiation was completed. But you get the idea. There are plenty of environmentalists and green businesses who are frustrated by the EU on a regular basis, but from the eco-warriors of the Green Party and Friends of the Earth through almost all the environmental think tanks and trade bodies to the green-minded multinationals and assorted CBI members, the environmental community will be dominated by pro-EU voices.
That is not to say the green movement is completely monolithic in its pro-EU stance. There are a few chips off the block who will campaign for Brexit. Zac Goldsmith has a long-standing and well-deserved reputation as an environmentalist, and a similarly long-standing and well-deserved reputation as a critic of the EU. Michael Gove has described himself as a 'shy green' in the past and Boris Johnson, for all his Telegraph remunerated flirting with Piers Corbyn's brand of climate scepticism, signed the Mayor's Office up to a host of climate targets. Few people have done more to promote the merits of clean energy than Bloomberg New Energy Finance's Michael Liebreich, but he remains a staunch and eloquent critic of Brussels' meddling in UK affairs.
There is a small band of 'green Brexiters' (including no doubt those Greens and Corbynistas who want to quit an EU they regard as a den of capitalist iniquity) who have no desire to engineer a break from Brussels that enables Lord Lawson's dream of a coal-fired Britain free from Jonny Foreigners' milquetoast tree-hugging concerns. Theirs' tends to be a vision of a bold and independent UK, free from supranational interference to deliver its own, more effective environmental policies, cementing its position as a confident clean tech and green investment hub in the process.
The EU's inherent contradictions and mis-steps will give them plenty of ammunition. The dirty compromises of diesel emission regulation, the looming threat TTIP presents to domestic green legislation, the absurd imposition of higher VAT rates for clean technologies, the environmental iniquities of the Common Agricultural Policy, the protectionism against low cost solar panel imports, the repeated failure to properly reform the emissions trading scheme. David Cameron's narrow negotiations did nothing to address any of these issues, meaning there are plenty of valid reasons for green businesses to conclude we may be better off out.
So why will the green business community break so overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU? Why did the Secretaries of State for Energy and Climate Change and the Environment resist the overtures of the Cabinet's gang of Brexitters? Why will the vast majority of the UK's environmental campaigners moonlight as 'In' campaigners over the coming months?
There are three main reasons, all of which boil down to the 'In' campaign's most powerful argument: the risks of leaving far outweigh the supposed rewards.
The first reason is that, for all its faults, the EU remains the driving force behind huge swathes of the UK's environmental policy and large chunks of its low carbon investment. Renewables targets, recycling goals, eWaste directives, air quality standards, safe bathing regulations, biodiversity and habitat protections, all these and more would be subject to disruption and increased risk in the event of Brexit. It would not be as simple as a host of EU regulations disappearing from the UK's statute book overnight, but the unpicking of various directives and the removal of an extra layer of legislative protection would create years' of disruption and leave many environmental rules vulnerable to the political weather. Policies that have enabled billions of pounds worth of clean tech investment and innovation could be at risk, alongside the European ideal that cross border challenges such as climate change and pollution are best dealt with in co-operation with your neighbours.
Secondly, there are the over-arching economic reasons why the vast majority of the business community at large wants the UK to remain in the EU. Cutting ourselves off from the world's largest single market on the understanding that our snubbed European counterparts would then graciously offer us a free trade agreement on our own terms and Scotland would quietly link arms with the rest of the UK and march away from Brussels is an optimistic strategy at best - and for 'optimistic' read 'staggeringly reckless'.
Add in the months and years of complex negotiation and crippling policy uncertainty that would come with Brexit in the midst of an anaemic recovery and an on-going crisis of productivity and under-investment - not to mention the likelihood that leaving the EU would make debates about immigration more, not less, intemperate - and it is easy to see why the pound tanked this morning and why privately pro-Brexit business leaders regard the entire referendum as a feat of Conservative self-indulgence. These feelings tend to be are particularly acute amongst clean tech and green executives who are attempting to tackle international challenges and are therefore keen to tap into international markets for products and labour.
However, these concerns pale in comparison with the main reason why most green business (and indeed just plain business) types will want the UK to remain a member of the EU: the staggering lack of clarity over what Brexit means. Over the past few days we've heard a lot from the motley crew of Brexit campaigners about the urgent need to wrestle back 'control' from Brussels, but no one seems to want to offer a clear answer to the obvious question about what they would do with this supposed control.
As mentioned there will be a handful of 'green Brexiters' who want to use greater UK independence to build a world-leading clean tech hub. But they will be a tiny camp in a fiercely divided Brexit campaign riven between those who want to turn the UK into a workers' rights-free North Sea Singapore, those who favour the 'within the European market, but outside the EU' stance of a Norway or Switzerland, those who want a 'pull up the drawbridge' immigration policy and those who want a points-based system that could end up having a negligible impact on overall migration, those who want out and out industrial protectionism, and those who just want to turn the clock back to the 1950s 'when Great Britain really was Great'.
The Scottish out campaign faltered over concerns about the economic implications of going it alone and uncertainty about the future of the pound. But the SNP's still sketchy vision for an oil-revenue reliant, renewables powerhouse, capable of nurturing a modern social democratic education and health system looked like an exercise in great statecraft next to the back of a beer mat plans of Farage and his fellow travellers.
And yet for all this uncertainty, there is one area on which the dominant competing Brexit voices appear united: they either have nothing to say about climate change and the needs of a modern, green, healthy, clean tech-enabled economy, or they are virulently opposed to pretty much all climate policy interventions and clean technology investment. With Lord Lawson, Nigel Farage, Owen Paterson, and Douglas Carswell to the fore the Venn diagram of eurosceptic and climate sceptic campaigners often looks like a perfect circle. As sure as night follows day, one of the first things the ranks of emboldened eurosceptics would demand post-Brexit would be a torching of climate policies.
Critics will label this type of analysis as 'Project Fear', but there is a lot for businesses to be fearful about. No doubt there are good, progressive reasons for green firms to back the 'In' campaign. It makes perfect sense to work with our closest neighbours to tackle environmental challenges and seize clean tech opportunities that affect us all. But the singular lack of a coherent vision, detailing how the economy and the business community would be impacted by Brexit, makes a vote to leave the embodiment of high stakes recklessness. You can see why Boris and some Brexiters have floated the idea of using the referendum to force another wave of EU renegotiation, raising the prospects of a second referendum when we have a better sense of what we are actually voting for and against. But that is not going to be on the ballot, it'll be a straight choice between 'in' and 'out' with no way of disguising the fact the vast majority of risk and uncertainty is loaded on the Brexit side.
There is scant appetite for a leap in the dark amongst green businesses, even less for a leap in the dark alongside a cabal of climate sceptics who would love nothing more than to turn it into a leap into the smog.
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