My big idea: get more involved in Europe

This post is by Julie Hill, Green Alliance associate and chair of the Circular Economy Task Force.

It is part of a new series where experts argue for one policy change that could dramatically cut the UK’s environmental impact.

My big idea is this: join Europe.  As in not just sign up, but really join in, in fact take a lead.  Leaving the monetary union fiasco aside, there are plenty of areas where such a strategy might pay long term dividends, but none is more obviously beneficial than environmental policy.

To give the UK political machine its due, it has moved over  the past couple of decades from resisting many of the EU’s environmental propositions, or at least seeking implementation delays, to being considerably more supportive and proactive.  This is particularly true when it has come to shaping EU positions in international negotiations.  In the current climate of growing British Euro-scepticism, and lest anyone mutter “what has the EU ever done for us” , we need to remind ourselves that embracing supra-national environmental policy has been wholly to our benefit and that, overall, the list of advances  is rather long.

What the EU has done for us
Without pan-European legislation we might still be swimming in our own sewage (Bathing Waters Directive); mixing toxic waste with domestic rubbish in open pits before sticking the lot in holes in the ground (Landfill Directive); pumping sulphurous pollution from our power stations to fall as acid rain in continental Europe (Large Combustion Plants Directive); and building over our few remaining truly natural areas (Habitats Directive).  We might not have a Thames recently declared one of the most transformed rivers in the world (Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive); hunters might still be shooting our birds on their way back from migration (Birds Directive); and we might be even nearer the bottom of the European recycling league than are we now, with millions of tonnes of useful material remaining uncollected (Packaging, End of Life Vehicles, Batteries and Waste Electronics Directives).  We might not be familiar with the C02 emissions of our cars, which have been driven steadily downwards (through mandatory emission reduction targets for new cars); and we  very likely would have no means of improving the energy efficiency of products on a Europe-wide basis (Ecodesign Directive).

This last is one of the most powerful yet unsung bits of European standard-setting.  It is expected to save UK consumers at least £158 from their annual energy bills by making electrical appliances more efficient, and an estimated €90 billion could be saved across Europe by 2020, translating into 400 megatonnes of CO2, if the process was speeded up by enhanced political backing.   (See Tom Turnbull’s post  of 27 June).  According to one report, for every euro saved in avoided energy costs, it could also indirectly reduce the price of energy by a further euro by suppressing demand. Best of all the Ecodesign Directive provides the potential basis for more comprehensive product standards by seeking to embrace qualities such as recyclability and recycled content.

Tax ‘bads’ not ‘goods’
Why would we want something so prescriptive, nay even nannyish?  Isn’t that outmoded, with leading edge companies now setting the environmental pace and providing us with fuller information and better products?  Undoubtedly there is more of that going on, but if we want to give it truly unstoppable momentum we need a framework, and a pan-European framework would be ideal.  Another big idea (not new, but still big and also fairly brave) would be to allow the EU to adapt the VAT system to prefer some products over others, and if that idea were to gain ground it would help to have a ready made set of standards to work to. For the UK to champion these and other moves would give us a claim to true leadership.

The really big idea is to see the drive towards better products and resource efficiency as nothing less than shaping a new industrial strategy for Europe.  It could be a strategy that picks up the idea of the circular economy and runs with it, using the ideals of resource conservation, security and innovation to re-establish manufacturing and recapture added value inside the EU, rather than letting a substantial part of it escape to the tiger economies.   It could be a way to gainsay the economic doomsters who claim that Europe is destined to low growth and  even ‘de-development’ as it struggles to find something to do that rivals the more dynamic forces in China and elsewhere.

It is not too late to seek to make things, and re-make them again and again, extracting every last iota of value out of the stuff we bring from other parts of the world.  The US has glimmerings of this ‘new manufacturing’ phenomenon starting in some of its states, so why not in Europe?  And, after all, isn’t this what the currently dynamic economies might themselves be doing some twenty or thirty years hence?  China already has a circular economy law, and while enforcement is not yet universal, the intent is clearly there.

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