I consider myself an environmentalist. I recycle, don’t drive, and turned vegetarian years ago (my full transition to veganism is imminent). I have, over the last few months, occasionally wondered why I am spending my time trying to avert the national disaster of Brexit as opposed to the international catastrophe of climate change. But these moments of reflection never last long, and the answer is always the same: Brexit is an environmental disaster waiting to happen, and the only way to avoid it is a People’s Vote.
In case you’ve somehow missed the memo, we’re in a bit of a tight spot right now with regards to the environment. Words like ‘apocalypse’ are being used by serious-looking people in white coats without the slightest shred of irony, and yet global CO2 emissions are still rising. While working at Our Future, Our Choice, my morning commute has occasionally been interrupted by protests organised by Extinction Rebellion - making me late. Still, I have found it difficult to disagree with their methods - the dangers we face are real and growing closer.
This is, somewhat counter-intuitively, not a divisive issue. In 2016 polls indicated that 80% of the public thought we should have at least the same levels of environmental protection after leaving as we do under EU membership. UK citizens want a greener country; it’s just that some of them believe we can achieve one outside of the EU. This is a noble thing to believe, and in principle, there is no reason why it shouldn’t be true.
But the UK has an incredibly bad track record on environmental issues, ranging from air quality to rivers, and from beaches to climate change. The EU has been a driving force for a cleaner and greener country; the above article on our levels of air pollution was was from 2017. In 2018 we were given an ultimatum by the EU to clean our act up. We failed to comply, they took us to court, and now we face millions of pounds worth of fines (we’re not alone - France and Germany amongst others face the same consequences).
In this country we cannot trust our leaders to do the right thing when it comes to the environment, and external pressure in the form of the EU will guarantee commitments towards a greener tomorrow. This is a guarantee that we urgently (given the state of our planet, even desperately) need.
I’m not suggesting that the EU is some kind of environmental superhero. Almost every single Remainer and environmentalist will readily admit that it has flaws. Even the EU itself admits it has shortcomings, and there is no shortage of media attention towards its failings. But the fact remains, as noted by the organisation Friends of the Earth, that “80% of our environmental laws come from the European Union”. Indeed, we need only look back to see evidence for a country that lags behind its peers. A study by Dr Charlotte Burns of the University of York points out that, previous to EU membership, the UK had an attitude towards the environment that can at best be described as feigned concern: “action [was] taken only when incontrovertible damage had been proved…policy makers reacted to problems only as they emerged, in a fragmented and ad hoc way”. Nothing in more recent history suggests that our leaders will have a different approach once we leave the EU (only two years ago they very quietly released a report showing they had missed their own green targets).
Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the EU guarantees that “the level of environmental protection provided by law, regulations and practices is not reduced below the level provided by the common standards applicable within the Union and the UK at the end of the transition period”. Though this sounds promising, it is in effect a commitment not to slide backwards. That would be fine - if our current national legislative situation wasn’t so terrible. We need to look forward, but will be left behind under Brexit. A case in point: right now, the EU is examining a proposal to reduce CO2 emissions from heavy-duty vehicles. This won’t come into effect until after we have left, meaning our government is under no obligation to follow suit.
Michael Gove’s draft bill does not, as he would have it, “assuage [my] concerns”; quite the opposite. The very first sentence is indicative of an approach that would place Brexit over practicalities: “Leaving the European Union is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this country to help make our planet greener and cleaner, healthier and happier.” Nowhere in this bill is there an explanation of how our membership with the EU was preventing us from making such changes, and that is because it wasn’t. Implying that we were held back from, rather than (quite forcibly) being pushed forward into greener policies is preposterous.
Rhetoric aside, Gove’s bill draws up plans for a new watchdog which will effectively replace the EU’s scrutiny. But unlike the EU, this watchdog will rely on the Environmental Secretary for its funding and appointment of a Chair, its targets will not be legally binding, and it will have no powers to impose fines. This bit of legislative dentistry ensures it will be toothless upon arrival, leaving it more like a lapdog than a watchdog. I’m not alone in these concerns: representatives from ClientEarth, Greener UK, and the RSPB all have similar fears.
Why bother with it at all then? Probably because otherwise more people will put up a fuss and stop voting Tory. Indeed, recent analysis suggests that the Conservative shift towards green policies is a calculated move to attract young voters: it is, after all, us young people who will have to clean up this mess. Funnily enough, similar things have been said about Brexit. Perhaps, then, young people should be listened to more closely on both of these issues. Let’s start with a People’s Vote.