It is coming down to the wire and all Europe is on tenterhooks waiting for how Britain will vote to remain or leave. Pilita Clark writes a good article in the Financial Times on the environmental issues and what they main in the debate.
Environmental issues left behind as Brexit rhetoric intensifies
Few topics seem to have been ignored in an increasingly frenzied EU referendum debate that has so far covered everything from Hitler to house prices.
But as the June 23 vote nears, anxiety is growing among some companies and many green groups about the relatively scant attention being paid to how a Brexit might affect the environment and UK energy industries.
Neither Leave nor Remain campaign leaders have focused heavily on the referendum’s implications for EU rules that shape the UK’s approach to product standards, air pollution, climate change, wildlife protection and energy use.
“It’s a major oversight,” says Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, a sustainable business body representing companies operating in the UK with a combined annual global turnover of more than £400bn.
“It’s alienating part of the electorate, especially young people who are very interested in the environment,” he says.
The future of common product standards are a particular concern for exporters selling to the single market, he adds, as well as EU energy and climate targets that have been “a real driver for low carbon goods”, such as ultra low emissions vehicles.
One of the Aldersgate Group’s largest members is Siemens, the German industrial conglomerate.
It sent a shudder through the renewable energy sector after it warned in April that a Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business and may become a factor when Siemens is considering future investment here”.
The company makes hundreds of the turbines used in the UK’s huge offshore wind farms and has agreed to spend £160m on Yorkshire production facilities.
The UK got a record 25 per cent of its electricity from renewable generators last year, partly because of its own 2008 Climate Change Act, one of the most far-reaching in the EU.
But growth was also driven by EU targets obliging the UK to get 15 per cent of its energy from renewables by 2020.
Fresh EU renewables targets are planned for 2030, but some analysts believe a Brexit would embolden critics eager to water down environmental laws they say are pushing up energy prices and making companies uncompetitive.
Lord Deben, Conservative peer and chairman of the Committee on Climate Change — the independent body that advises the government on meeting its environmental targets — says the UK would have much less clout outside the EU, raising pressure on businesses and making them less willing to accept environmental restrictions.
Competition arguments would “really have force” if the UK was trying to compete on its own with the EU and the US, he says.
The broader energy industry also faces challenges if the UK leaves the EU, according to a report last week by the Chatham House policy institute.
The UK was a net exporter of energy at the turn of the century but the end of domestic coal mining and depletion of North Sea oil and gas reserves means it now relies on imports for 45 per cent of its consumption, the study says.
“As a growing share of the UK’s electricity is exchanged with EU partners, it would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” the report says.
“Overall, the option of remaining in the EU provides the highest levels of certainty for continued energy investment.”
Many environmental figures, meanwhile, say EU directives on bathing water, wildlife protection and air quality helped the UK shed its reputation as the “dirty man of Europe” and are still needed to keep the country clean.
Not everyone agrees. Michael Liebreich, founder of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance research group, says it is “complete and utter tosh” to suggest the UK would slide back to its old polluting ways if it left the EU.
The “dieselgate” scandal and the common fisheries policy show the EU’s environmental record is not nearly as good as some claim, he says, and there are wider concerns about green technologies.
“The environmental community is nearly unanimous that Brexit would be a disaster for the environment,” Mr Liebreich told the FT. “But they are missing the vital role of innovation. We won’t pull our weight developing solutions to climate change if we’re stuck in a declinist, low-innovation, protectionist-inclined bloc.”
Such arguments carry little weight with the bulk of green campaigners who have resorted to organising a series of conferences, roundtables and studies to highlight environmental issues they say have been sorely missing in the Brexit debate.
Sir Edward Davey, the former Liberal Democrat energy secretary, told a conference in May that more large conservation groups needed to “get off the fence” and start making the EU Remain case.
The National Trust and the World Wildlife Fund are staying neutral on a decision they say is for the British people, though David Nussbaum, WWF’s chief executive, says the lack of discussion about the environment so far has been “hugely frustrating”.
There are some signs that politicians are finally heeding the message. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made a rare appearance with his predecessor Ed Miliband last week at a North Lincolnshire solar farm to warn that Britain’s membership of the EU was vital in the fight against climate change.
There is clearly a long way to go. Mary Creagh, Labour MP, told the same conference as Sir Edward that she had been alarmed to hear party supporters say they planned to vote for Brexit because they mistakenly thought Labour must be opposing a Conservative PM’s push to remain.