The UK has gone from the ‘dirty man of Europe’ to enjoying a cleaner environment, a healthier population, and a thriving green economy, all as a direct result of EU policy.
Environmental issues are mostly cross-border problems. Water and air cannot be separated by nation state — pollution from one country can easily affect the rivers and beaches of another. Air pollution from one country causes acid rain in another. Waste can all too easily be collected in one country and illegally dumped in another.
The UK changed its approach to sewage treatment and nitrate emissions following the bathing water directive of the EU. As a result, the quality of beaches and bathing water has vastly improved. This is not only a great thing for those who enjoy a trip to the beach, but also for economies in seaside towns, as tourists are more likely to visit cleaner beaches. And when booking a holiday anywhere in Europe, the blue flag system guarantees that the beach will be clean, wherever it is.
In 1975, when we joined the EU, Britain’s sulphur dioxide emissions were some 5 million tonnes a year. The EU’s Air Quality Framework Directive called on all member countries to take action, and now we enjoy air with reduced sulphur dioxide emissions, at only 0.31 million tonnes a year.
We’ve signed up to Europe-wide rules about providing protective areas for wildlife. Promoting natural ecosystems brings many benefits, including acting as a natural flood defence, reducing CO2 emissions and helping pollination, as well as providing food, water and materials useful to us. Before EU policy, these sites were being lost at a rate of 15% a year. Now, this has fallen to just 1%.
EU countries have agreed an overall target of getting 20% of our energy from renewable sources by 2020. To help reach this, the UK has a goal of making 15% of its energy renewable by 2020. We also have a transport-specific target: 10% of fuels used in transport should be renewable.
Many species cross our continent when they migrate, so obviously the only way to protect these migration routes is to agree continent-wide measures. We have done this at European level.
The rest of the world
Europe is a powerful voice on the world stage when it comes to climate change. The European Union played a key role in negotiating the Kyoto Protocol and works with developing countries to ensure the concept of sustainable development is at their heart of their policies.
Europe-wide conservation efforts for fish have had a major impact. For more details, see my page on Fishing.