Defenders of the European Union often argue that environmental challenges can only be tackled at the trans-national level.
But whilst it may be true that combating climate change requires coordinated international action – and we have written elsewhere how Brussels often stands in the way of just that – it isn’t the case for everything.
One area where individual nation-states are much better positioned to make policy is when it comes to protecting biodiversity and local ecosystems. A one-size-fits-all approach, set at the EU level, too often fails to account for the specific needs and challenges of different European habitats and the communities which depend on them.
For example, the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has helped to drive decades of over-fishing by forcing Britain to open up her territorial waters to trawlers from across the EU. Not only does this make it harder to control the level at which precious fish stocks are depleted, but Brussels’ ‘Total Allowable Catch’ system – theoretically meant to prevent over-fishing – in fact encourages fishermen to dump excess fish back over the side.
Not only does all of this seriously impact the UK’s own coastal communities, which have fished British waters sustainably for generations, but it has done real damage to the ocean ecosystem too.
It gets no better on land. Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, has forcefully argued that the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been a significant barrier to protecting British biodiversity. This is because it rewards farmers on the basis of how much land they use – not how they use it.
Across the country populations of farmland birds, wild bees, small mammals, and fish have fallen into steep decline, and European policy has done nothing to reverse it.
Worse, not only does the CAP represent a huge missed opportunity to incentivise farmers to use environmentally friendly methods, it actually encourages them to maximise the amount of land they use in order to get as much subsidy as possible.
We can do so much better. The UK has been a world leader on green policy for at least ten years – in 2008, we were the first country ever to enshrine in law clear, enforceable targets for cutting CO2 emissions. The Government has already set out its commitment not only to match the EU’s current environmental protections but to build on them.
Once Britain has taken back control of green issues, our ministers will be able to work with local experts and communities to create environmental policies tailor-made for our islands’ diverse and unique ecosystems and wildlife.
The Government will be able to set more rigorous controls on use of our fish stocks. Not only will this allow depleted populations of commercially-popular fish such as cod time to recover, but it will allow ministers to ensure that the long-term livelihoods of British fishing communities are safeguarded too.
Once free from the CAP, meanwhile, the Department for the Environment will have huge scope for designing a new system of agricultural subsidies which balances the need to support British farmers with measures to protect habitants and our rural landscape.
Some people might worry that rural and coastal communities will suffer from the loss of European funding. But remember, the UK is a net contributor to the EU. After we stop paying into Brussels’ pot future governments will have more than enough money to continue to support our farmers and fishermen.