Is environment the biggest hole in the referendum campaigns?

Missing puzzel in green color. Selective focusThis post is by Andy Jordan and Viviane Gravey of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.  They recently co-led an expert review of the environmental implications of Brexit funded by the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative.

Last week’s statement by a cross party group of environmental politicians was important, less for what it contained and more for what was behind it.  Launched with the backing of Britain Stronger in Europe, it marked the first attempt by either of the two official referendum campaigns to capture the environmental vote.  Having seized the initiative, the eyes of the environmental movement are now on Vote Leave to see how – and, indeed, if – it responds.

As the campaign approaches its mid-point, it is easy to assume that the most salient issues have been unearthed and openly debated.  If the latest opinion polls are to be believed, around 20 per cent of voters are still undecided.  Environmentalists firmly believe that the environment is one of those issues that can help the undecideds choose which way to vote, but has not yet received the full airing it deserves.

The environment remains a significant issue of popular concern.  Between them, the main environmental organisations have millions of supporters, far more than the political parties combined.  It was notable that in his first, and only, major intervention in the debate, Jeremy Corbyn cited the environment as a primary reason why Labour voters should side with remain.

Why have the two campaigns been so silent?
But, other than last week’s intervention, the two official campaigns have said virtually nothing about the environment or climate change.  Their reticence is puzzling; it is certainly not for any lack of solid facts and figures. Reports by the Environmental Audit Committee, the ESRC’s referendum initiative and the Institute for European Environmental Policy have concluded that EU membership has generally been positive for the UK environment.

Although they were written by different authors and draw on different sources of evidence, all three reports arrive at a strikingly similar conclusion: national environmental policies have grown stronger and environmental quality has risen as a result of EU policies. Furthermore, across a range of scenarios, Brexit is likely to generate many significant uncertainties that could seriously imperil these achievements.

In the past, some environmental groups have engaged much more eagerly with EU policy than others.  But a new review by ENDS has revealed that all are supportive of remaining.  A more detailed survey of the views of environmental professionals shows that 85 per cent intend to vote to remain, a far higher percentage than amongst the general public.  In fact, the only debates in the sector are around second order issues such as tactics.

Environmental groups have been filling the hole
In the absence of stronger intervention from Britain Stronger in Europe early on in the campaign, pro-EU environmentalists tried to fill the hole by themselves, warning how Brexit will decimate national legislation and threaten all the EU’s environmental achievements “that we take for granted as fundamental to our standard of living in this country”.

The remain campaign finally acknowledged the issue, with last week’s report on ‘10 green reasons for remaining in Europe’ and ten reasons why “the Leave campaign can’t be trusted on the environment”.  Understandably, it dwells on the positives. The EU’s fisheries and agriculture policies, which have been far less successful in environmental terms, barely receive a mention, likewise the EU’s current policy of subjecting existing policies to ‘fitness tests’ against competitiveness criteria.

It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that these reports and debates have been met by near silence from Vote Leave.  There is nothing at all about the environment in the main part of its website.  One has to enter its Briefing Room to get ‘key facts’ on thirteen more specific issues, starting with ‘cost’ (of membership), ‘control’ (of Brussels) and ‘health’ (ie how the EU allegedly threatens the NHS).  ‘Energy’ and ‘agriculture’ squeeze in at positions 12 and 13.  Those looking for a detailed explanation of what environment policy will look like outside the EU will be disappointed.

Perhaps Vote Leave is not that interested in environmental matters, but is loath to admit it in public.  Perhaps, to paraphrase Jonathan Porritt, it cannot actually muster an environmental case for leaving the EU. Perhaps, as pointed out by The Economist, it may go much deeper: witness the overlaps between those who declare themselves to be climate sceptics (or ‘lukewarmists’) and those advocating Brexit. In the meantime, Peter Lilley’s five page dissenting report, published by the Environmental Audit Committee, provides the most substantial input on environmental matters from those campaigning to leave.

This year, the UK environmental movement has done something which it has not considered necessary before: it has convinced itself that EU membership, whilst not without risks, is generally in its and the nation’s interest. Groups are communicating this message to their supporters and members, whilst seeking to persuade both the remain and leave camps to fully address the environmental holes in their campaigns.


  • The absence of the environment from the referendum campaigns says a lot, and none of it favourable, about both sides. The Brexiteers apparently see environmental regulation as just another Brussels imposed cost on business, one that that trumps all costs and damage to the public and the ecosystems we rely on that would come from weaker or no such regulation. The failure of the UK Government to advance the environmental case for remaining is surely due to the more immediately desirable impacts of the EU regime being that it keeps the UK and all other member states up to the mark (a democratically agreed mark, of course) when they would prefer to pander instead to other domestic political pressures and let environmental imperatives go hang. ClientEarth’s air pollution litigation is the most striking recent example of this, but there are many others. However, making this an argument for remaining is to acknowledge that we have indeed given up (or shared, if you will) our sovereignty in this area. And a good job too, but you can see how the Brexiteers’ natural instinct would be to jump on the point. But instead of shying away from the issue, as the Government has tended to, we should use it to draw out and emphasise the Brexiteers’ hostility to environmental regulation generally, and claim the benefit of being able to ensure that our competitors elsewhere in the EU are also obliged to keep to the same high standards as we would wish to have at home anyway.
    It is I believe futile to hope that the UK Government will embrace this approach whole-heartedly, but equally if the argument is put most strongly by the “usual suspects”, i.e. NGOs such as Greenpeace, the WWF, RSPB and FoE, they will be open to attack, however unfairly, for being recipients of EU funding and, by implication, outposts of the Brussels empire. Which is why it is vital that authoritative and (relatively) independent bodies concerned with maintaining high environmental values such as the Green Alliance and Parliamentary committees make their views widely known.

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