A rebellion! Any kind of shaking and waking up a nodding conscience and lingering complacency when it comes to irreparable harm being done to our planet is a good thing I suppose, and the more people get engaged, the better. It seems to take some so-called influencers to make this awakening happen.
However, long before David Attenborough’s ‘Plasticgate’ appeal and Greta Thunberg’s Extinction Rebellion kick-off, a considerable number of people have been busy in the background and foreground to raise awareness of – and fight against – environmental issues. Their hard work, relentlessness, convictions and concerns have helped make the topic more and more mainstream in the past few decades. Organisations like Greenpeace, the Green parties, a multitude of other groups, individuals and experts have gradually managed to raise our level of environmental awareness and to change our mindsets. Views and thoughts around how we can protect our world from harmful man-made impact have become more of a norm and less of a thing with which only eco-warriors are concerned.
I am speaking from a point of view of someone who grew up in Germany. I think we are lucky in that, in general, environmental awareness is comparatively high and taken fairly seriously across our continent. The fact that there are many EU regulations in place which have the environment at heart and that they are evolving, changing and added to is proof that this has been one of the major topics for the member states, and has been for a long time. Regulations and standards have been shaped by a growing awareness but also, vice versa, they help to shape awareness. Within the EU, some countries have been forerunners in environmental discussions and have been the driving forces in putting regulations and policies in place. This just shows one of the huge benefits of the collaboration between the EU nations – they challenge each other. As the environment knows no borders, having common denominators is paramount in order to reach minimum standards and to create a level playing field across the EU countries.
There are quite a few EU environmental policies that have made a difference and helped to make Europe a cleaner and healthier place. They have also helped to transform the UK into a country with a healthier environment, a healthier population and economic advantages.
The UK was famously known as the ‘dirty man of Europe’ in the 70s, partly due to the state of its beaches and the poor water quality. Bathing water quality is just one example, one area where laying down minimum standards across the EU has had a significant impact. The Bathing Water Directive(BWD), introduced in the 70s and revised in 2006, requires EU member states to monitor and assess bathing water for pollution and also to inform the public about bathing water quality. Symbols and signs that help visualise the quality ratings ‘excellent’, ‘good’, ‘sufficient’ or ‘poor’ were introduced in 2011. The directive has helped to vastly improve Europe’s bathing sites over the past 40 years. In 2018, 96.4% of UK bathing sites met the minimum quality requirements, with just over 63% meeting the standard ‘excellent’ according to European Commission figures.
Apart from the health aspect, there is an economic benefit to cleaner beaches. They are more likely to attract visitors and boost local economies, delivering a scenario of improved environmental quality as well as economic gain.
Water quality is just one of many areas addressed by EU environmental policies, covering a broad range of aspects, from climate change to research and innovation, with some main topicsbeing agriculture; air; chemicals; the circular economy; cities; climate change; energy; industry; land and soil; marine and coastal environment; nature and biodiversity; noise; research and innovation; transport; waste; and water.
In the context of addressing the climate crisis, the EU has binding legislation to ensure that certain climate and energy targetsare met by 2020 – a 20% cut in greenhouse gas emissions (from 1990 levels), the requirement that 20% of energy consumption comes from renewable energy and achieving a 20 % cut in primary energy use by improving energy efficiency. By 2030, targets climb to a reduction of at least 40% in emissions, moving toward net zero by the middle of the century.
Other targets are laid out in the 7th Environment Action Programme (EAP), which will be guiding European environment policy until 2020, with a long-term vision for 2050 in mind. Including, for example, halting the loss of biodiversity, achieving levels of air quality that do not give rise to significant risks to human health and the environment, the objective that chemicals are produced and used in ways that minimise significant adverse effects on human health and the environment – and many more.
Not every policy is perfect. Not as much has been done as could have been given the knowledge about various issues. It’s not that the end of the rainbow has been reached and the EU can wash its hands of responsibility in the global picture. As everywhere, there is too much plastic, too much waste, too many CO2 emissions, and too little action from those who could make an impact (governments, big companies, supermarkets…). However, all in all, we can be glad to be part of this group of countries that challenge as well as support each other and try to make a difference. EU policy acknowledges that environmental policy has a greater impact when managed across borders.
A rebellion that can support a rebellion! Staying in the EU gives the UK a lot of advantages in the fight against pollution and climate change. 80% of our environmental laws come from the European Union. These laws may be lost, weakened, or harder to enforce if we were outside the EU. So, let’s keep rebelling to avoid crashing out into the unknown. Knowledge exchange, maintaining common minimum standards, researching together, challenging each other, staying strong as a unit in the global context… Close collaboration with our neighbours provides these advantages. Splitting away and going it alone is not the answer to today’s demands.
Sources, references and further reading
General information regarding EU environmental regulations, protection etc
UK in context of EU environmental policy