Many of those advocating for Britain to remain closely aligned with the European Union after Brexit cite the need to tackle climate change as a key reason. Confronting challenges on that scale, they argue, surely requires close international cooperation. Britain can’t save the planet on its own.
That much is certainly true – but far from furthering the cause of protecting the environment, the UK’s EU membership too often holds us back from pursuing the innovative, scientifically-informed, and truly global solutions we need.
Britain is an international leader when it comes to green policies. When we passed the Climate Change Act in 2008 we became the first country in the world to write long-term, legally-binding commitments to reducing CO2. There is no political pressure on ministers to slash environmental standards when we leave the EU, and both the Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary have set out how the Government intends to set the highest standards after we leave the EU.
But if we don’t intend to start slashing protections, it might seem easier at first glance just to agree to harmonise with Brussels on environmental standards? There are two very good reasons why this isn’t the case.
First, it is essential in a democracy that those who make our laws are accountable to the voters and can be thrown out if need be. The referendum result was a powerful signal from the British people that they wanted to take back control over the laws which govern them, and it would be a betrayal of the Leave vote to allow such important policies to be set by Brussels.
But even setting that aside, the truth is that the EU is very often not the effective champion of the environment that many of its defenders make it out to be.
The entire EU only accounts for 10 per cent of the world’s CO2 emissions. Any truly effective and sustainable approach to cutting greenhouse gases and moving the world economy away from fossil fuels will need truly global solutions. Yet too often Brussels’ diplomatic blunders leave its Member States – including Britain – out in the cold, for example when Canada blocked the EU’s accession to the Artic Council in 2013, or the US and China side-lined it at the 2009 Copenhagen summit.
Worse still, Brussels actually undermines the ability of European countries to combat climate change. By trying to impose solutions in a narrow, European way, instead of pursuing far-reaching global agreements, the EU actually encourages big business to move their factories to other countries. This not only costs jobs and investment, but puts these companies outside the reach of the EU’s regulators!
This fits a broader pattern of EU officials putting politics first, and reality second – as when Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, sacked the EU’s Chief Scientist in 2014 for giving him politically inconvenient advice.
Leaving the EU will do nothing to change the UK’s long-standing commitment to be at the forefront of the fight against climate change. Rather, it will give our elected governments the freedom to set world-class standards, follow the best scientific advice, forge the broad international agreements needed for effective action, and work with businesses to modernise the economy rather than driving employers overseas.