The Brexit camp's indifference towards the environment should ring alarm bells

James Murray

There appears to be no plan (at least in public) for how UK environmental and climate policy would evolve outside the EU - green businesses and investors should be very worried

The response to widespread concerns about the future of the UK's habitat, biodiversity, water, air, climate, recycling, waste, and green economy policies appears to be a contorted version of Vote Leave's wider argument that the UK needs to take back its sovereignty so as to explore purposely undefined "ideas".

As with the pro-Brexit camp's crass effort to make the referendum about patriotism and sovereignty this analysis is flawed. It simultaneously overstates the level of Brussels' interference - you will have noticed that despite decades of the EU 'straight jacket' every European country still looks very different and still commonly apply their own unique approaches to environmental management - and wilfully ignores the benefits that come with sharing some sovereignty to tackle shared environmental challenges, many of which do not neatly confine themselves to national borders.

But the bigger question is why is Vote Leave largely silent on these issues? Once freed from Brussels' shackles, what are the innovative ideas that would be deployed as part of Eurosceptic experiment with our environment? In short, what would Brexit look like for the UK's environment and green economy?

We do not know, but we can speculate.

The Remain campaign has taken a clear decision to refrain from aiming personal attacks at the Brexit campaign's leading lights on the grounds they want to appear like the grown-ups in this debate - a goal which is easy to achieve when Boris Johnson is implying the US President's race means he holds an historical grievance against the UK and Vote Leave strategist Dominic Cummings is offering the world an insight into his patented brand of petulance personified.

But the personalities involved are important, not least because for many of them an EU referendum election victory would be just a staging post in a wider plan - the takeover of the Conservative Party and the reinvention of a 'Britannia Unchained' defined by a deregulatory, laissez faire agenda that would make Adam Smith blush and a level of environmental protection that would quickly make the UK's 'green and pleasant land' tag look like a cruel joke.

There are some honourable exceptions amongst the leading Brexiters who genuinely believe a UK free from the EU would be able to develop environmental and green economic policies that are more ambitious and effective than those we've developed in conjunction with our neighbours. But they are few and far between. We can assume from Vote Leave's comments on energy prices that it is seriously mulling the rolling back of a host of clean energy policies, just as we know from their previous comments that a number of influential Brexit MPs want to see the Climate Change Act repealed. Beyond this the Brexit campaign has nothing to say about air quality, water pollution, the circular economy, or numerous other environmental challenges and opportunities.

Why this uncharacteristic reticence? We can only conclude it is because they either do not care about these issues, care about them but do not see them as a priority, or are planning to torch green policies for ideological reasons and know such a revelation will not necessarily sit well with undecided voters.

The reality is a vote to leave increases the chances of a post-Brexit, post-Cameron cabinet defined by outright hostility to what certain Conservative MPs disparagingly refer to as the 'Green Blob' and emboldened in their pursuit of a carbon intensive and environmentally reckless agenda they would struggle to ever see validated at an election.

The standard response to analyses such as this is "Why are you indulging in 'Project Fear'? Why don't you put forward a positive vision for remaining in the EU?"

Well, the reason for ‘Project Fear' is that the poorly defined, ideologically motivated, politically, economically, and environmentally reckless path many advocates of Brexit are pushing is extremely scary. To give up so much influence, so much power, and relative stability at a time of such global uncertainty is a self-indulgent leap in the dark. Brexit may unleash the UK and propel it into a bold new future of enterprise and innovation, but we have to recognise the risk it could represent the moment at which the up to now slow erosion of Britain's post-imperial international influence and standing hits terminal velocity.

The reason the positive vision for remaining in the EU is not getting much of an airing is that it is a complex and evolving vision that is easy to mischaracterise and is unlikely to cut through to undecided voters in the rough and tumble of an increasingly ill-tempered referendum campaign.

There is, of course, an idealistic and positive case for remaining in a flawed but reforming EU based on the fact international co-operation is anti-jingoistic, broadly peaceful, and allows us to recognise there is more that unites countries in shared endeavour than divides them in antagonistic competition.

This co-operative approach is of particular importance for environmental issues. If you are in your 30s you will recall one of the first environmental lessons you learnt at school was about how UK factories were killing trees in Scandinavia thanks to acid rain. You can probably also recall how each summer Newsround broadcast stories about the filth washing up on our beaches. There is no point boasting about sovereignty if you cannot stop your neighbours poisoning the environment you depend on. It is through shared goals, ideals, and strategies that nations can overcome shared challenges, and, better still, go on to share the best practices and technologies that create the sustainable and climate resilient economy we all need. The problem is this argument does not boil down to a handy slogan that resonates at the ballot box.

But here's the thing. A positive vision whereby the UK remains in the EU and builds on existing and admittedly imperfect environmental policies to create a cleaner, greener, healthier, and more resilient economy exists. It is a vision where a host of the world's most powerful and prosperous economies work together, each drawing on their own unique strengths and histories, to ensure they play a leading role in the world's second great industrial revolution. Meanwhile, from the Brexit camp, there is nothing except vague hints at future environmental reform, open hostility to climate action, and silence - a silence that should make anyone who cares about the green economy and the UK's environment very suspicious.

More on Politics

Credit: iStock

Inflation Reduction Act: 10 ways it will turbocharge US climate action (and one way it won't)

The landmark legislation's climate provisions could unlock billions of dollars of low carbon investment and millions of green jobs - but it also paves the way for new fossil fuel infrastructure

James Murray
clock 08 August 2022 • 22 min read
Tory leadership candidates urged to prioritise measures to decarbonise built environment

Tory leadership candidates urged to prioritise measures to decarbonise built environment

In an open letter from the Building Research Establishment, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are urged to demonstrate how they would decarbonise the UK's buildings

clock 08 August 2022 • 3 min read
Drought warnings: Water firms face fresh calls to crack down on leaks

Drought warnings: Water firms face fresh calls to crack down on leaks

Reports suggest as much as 2.4 billion litres of water are wasted daily due to leaks and faulty infrastructure, as UK braces for wider water-saving measures

clock 08 August 2022 • 4 min read