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By Ali Qassim
June 22— Much of the environmental progress the U.K. has achieved in the four decades since it joined the European Union is in danger of being reversed if Britons vote to leave the 28-nation bloc in this week's referendum, according to environmentalists and business groups interviewed by Bloomberg BNA.
A “Brexit”—the term being used for a U.K. exit from the EU—also would mean the island-nation could lose a significant source of renewable energy investment, as well as the chance to shape future EU environmental policy, they said.
But some supporters of a June 23 vote to leave the EU claim environmental doomsday scenarios are being overblown; others say bloc-wide rules have actually hampered environmental progress in some cases across Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“EU environmental legislation isn't perfect, but it has in several cases improved environmental standards in the U.K., such as on water quality and air pollution,” Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, an alliance of business leaders, politicians and nonprofit organizations, told Bloomberg BNA June 22.
By putting in place environmental standards that apply across the EU's single market and its 28 member states, its environmental policy “has created a level playing field for businesses, reduced the cost of complying with regulations that would otherwise be different from one country to another and provided a large export market for those companies—such as British manufacturers of ultra-low emission cars—who develop goods or services that can meet these standards,” said Molho.
Water quality at beaches today “is better than at any time in living memory,” Samuel Lowe, trade campaigner at environmental activist group Friends of the Earth, told Bloomberg BNA, citing statistics from the Environment Agency.
“On air quality this story is much the same,” he said. “Improvements in the U.K. were only made following EU action” and “as a result, between 1970 and 2011 sulfur dioxide emissions dropped by 94 percent.”
Before its implementation of the EU's Birds and Habitats directives, the U.K. was losing its protected sites at a rate of 15 percent per year, but “now it is down to 1 percent,” said Lowe.
“If the U.K. exits the EU, we will lose the strongest legal protection for wildlife and natural habitats,” said Matthew Spencer, director of the think tank Green Alliance. “Unless U.K. enforcement gets much stronger, Brexit [would] result in new development in areas of countryside which were previously sacrosanct.”
But U.K. Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom, a member of the ruling Conservative government, scoffed at the claims from some environmental groups.
“The fact is, we are world leaders in the development of new, low-carbon technologies,” Leadsom said in a recent speech. “Not only that, but our low-emissions reductions ambitions set out in our Climate Change Act … are world leading, certainly EU leading. So let me be very clear. Absolutely none of this is threatened by the U.K. voting to leave the EU. … Put simply, the lights will not go out. Bills will not go up and decarbonization will not stall as a result of leaving the EU.”
Leadsom said leaving the EU could actually help the U.K.'s renewable energy policy “by getting away from huge restrictions of EU state aid rules,” which forbid bloc members from showing favoritism to their own companies at the expense of EU competitors.
She also said EU membership significantly raises the value-added tax on sales of solar panels.
“The problem with EU directives is they are very clunky, very restrictive,” Farming Minister George Eustice, also part of the Conservative government, said in a recent speech. “I have lawyers in my office rather than the scientists I’d like to have … and it stifles innovation and prevents us from trying new ideas. … This country is passionate about our environment and we can deliver better policy with the support of the public.”
But Friends of the Earth's Lowe said some who want to leave the EU are “gathering round the promise of victory parties lit by bonfires of environmental regulation,” and claimed prominent advocates for Brexit are “one and the same as those who have fought action on climate change.”
If the Brexit vote passes, then “the likelihood of us having an environmentally progressive policy post-Brexit seems slim,” Lowe said.
The economic uncertainty created by Brexit also augurs badly for how a future government could view environment rules, according to Spencer.
“There is a real risk that, faced with economic turbulence following Brexit, U.K. domestic action on climate change, air pollution and chemical regulation will be weakened in the name of competitiveness,” he said.
Nina Skorupska, chief executive of the industry lobby group the Renewable Energy Association, told Bloomberg BNA: “The U.K. Climate Change Act is legal, but can be repealed by any future government.”
U.K. Energy and Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd, who is campaigning for the U.K. to remain part of the continental bloc, has been vocal about the renewable energy investment opportunities that the European Union provides Britain.
“Being in the EU helps us attract billions and billions of pounds of investment in our energy system and supply chain,” Rudd said in a recent speech. “Does anybody really think all of that investment would continue if we left the EU, and with no extra cost?”
According to Rudd, the U.K. wins a third of EU's renewable energy investment, and major offshore wind developers like Denmark's Dong Energy's and Germany's Siemens “certainly want us to stay in.”
Rudd also underlined how as part of a large trading bloc, the U.K. can help to “influence the great geopolitical challenges of the day,” and cited the country's role in pushing through the Paris Agreement on climate change last December.
“If we left the EU, with the U.K. responsible for just 1 percent of global emissions, I doubt we would have even been in the room,” she said. “How do I know? Because I was there in the room and many others weren't.”
Lowe said without EU membership, the U.K. “would have a much reduced ability to shape EU rules and environmental standards, meaning that the environmental peculiarities of the U.K. would get a much reduced hearing when future policy is created.”
And the Aldersgate Group's Molho said by leaving the EU, the U.K. would lose its ability to steer many environmental and low-carbon economy decisions currently being debated in Brussels, such as the circular economy package and the implementation of the Paris climate change agreement in EU law.
In addition, with its upcoming presidency of the EU Council in 2017, “and with many British businesses at the cutting edge of environmental innovation, the U.K. [if it remains the EU] will have a unique opportunity to shape these upcoming decisions and make EU environmental policy more effective in areas such as waste policy and more ambitious in areas such as climate change,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ali Qassim in London at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Greg Henderson at firstname.lastname@example.org
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