14 October 2015: green reasons for Britain to stay in the EU

The campaign to persuade Britons to stay in the EU, Britain Stronger in Europe, has now been launched.  Their website http://www.strongerin.co.uk says that “Britain is stronger, better off and safer in Europe than we would be on our own.”

This slogan has two advantages: it is true and it is positive. A ‘hold on to nurse’ approach would be out of tune with the political zeitgeist. As readers of this blog know, I’m no fan of Jeremy Corbyn. But his victory in the Labour leadership contest was based on hope and vision, not on gloomy warnings of risk and danger. Martin Luther King did not inspire a movement by saying ‘I have a nightmare’.

The In campaign must provide a vision. By staying in the EU, Britain will be better off – not only than we would be outside, and but also than we are today. This European dream must be credible, so the plentiful evidence of the EU’s achievements must be used to underline what we have achieved. It should emphasise what we can achieve in the future by continuing to work together. And the vision should have a strong green strand. Staying in the EU will deliver a cleaner, safer Britain for our children, and a cleaner, safer Britain than we have today.

Britain Stronger in Europe is headed by Stuart Rose, the former boss of Marks and Spencers. M&S has an excellent climate and environment strategy, Plan A, and an excellent strapline – because there is no Planet B. The director of Britain Stronger in Europe, Will Straw, previously worked on climate change at the Institute for Public Policy Research. Green MP Caroline Lucas, the only British politician brave enough to present climate as a moral issue, was on stage at the launch. So I am confident that a green message will be part of their campaign.

What should this green In message be? Much of the substance could be taken from a blog (http://greenallianceblog.org.uk/2015/10/12/the-eus-unique-role-in-helping-us-to-respond-to-environmental-threats/ )

by Nigel Haigh, director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy 1980- 98 and chair of Green Alliance 1989-98 (so my former boss – but that’s not why I’m recommending his work). Nigel writes that:

The EU has been a major international force for good through policy innovation.”

He cites Europe’s role in getting a global production cap for CFCs agreed in the 1987 Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer. He also notes the EU’s role in setting environmental standards:

“mandatory air quality standards being particularly relevant just now”.

And he concludes with a paragraph summing up the need for continental co-operation:

The institutions of the EU may sometimes be slow to respond to new threats but they have been innovative and have also adapted to environmental challenges the UK could never have tackled alone. If the EU didn’t exist, something like it would have to be invented, to co-ordinate action on transboundary threats to our quality of life.”

All very sensible – but back to talk of threats. Those arguing for climate action need to talk instead about opportunities. The New Climate Economy project of The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate shows how this can be done – see its recent report on how low-carbon cities are a $17 trillion global opportunity.


The EU is not yet taking this low-carbon opportunity. As a member, the UK could and should help it do so. As I argued in my 2014 CER policy brief (http://www.cer.org.uk/publications/archive/policy-brief/2014/green-benefits-britains-eu-membership), the UK benefits from EU membership on many green issues, including air quality and wildlife and habitat protection. But on climate change, the UK’s approach of combining carbon pricing with regulation is better than the EU’s reliance on carbon pricing alone.

The UK might keep this policy in place following Brexit, but probably would not. (UKIP are climate deniers.) In any case, a sensible UK policy on climate change does not contribute much to global climate protection. We might think that we are an important country that walks tall on the world stage. In some respects that may be true. But in climate terms we are a small country with less than 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Whereas over a tenth of this pollution is emitted in the EU, and the figure for Europe’s proportion of total global emissions would much higher if it included (as it should) the carbon content of all the goods imported from China, India and so on.

If Britain votes to stay in the EU, we should then take the lead in strengthening EU climate and energy policy. Other ‘green’ member-states – Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland – would welcome this. Better climate and energy policies would deliver cleaner air, thus cutting health bills. They would strengthen the industries of the future. So they would deliver a society in which Europeans would be healthier, happier and richer.

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