Sarah Walpole: Staying in the EU is better for health and the environment

The EU debate is a fantastic example of how statistics can tell you what you want to hear, with both sides appearing to use the same facts to come to opposing conclusions. Yet on environmental issues, the story is not so perplexing.

Environmental organisations, from the Wildlife Trust to the RSPB to Friends of the Earth, are firmly in the Remain camp. The EU guarantees a minimum level of environmental protection, because it defines the environment as a “shared competence” where there are minimum standards that member states must meet. The EU is also the right forum to create and monitor policy on international issues, for example fisheries, where reforms have allowed the protection of fish stocks.

Fiona Godlee has been said that health offers the good news story in response to the problem of climate change: “What’s good for the climate is good for health.” While climate change has been represented as a problem that will require us to restrict our consumption and enjoyment, reframing climate change in terms of health helps us to see the benefits of environmental behaviours and policies. Active outdoor leisure time is not only better for the environment, it also has more cardiovascular and mental health benefits than indoor electronic leisure time. Vegetarian food not only has a smaller ecological footprint than meat, it also reduces the risk of cancer.

In the EU debate, the environment may just offer the good news story in the midst of a sea of negative and fear-mongering messages.

The fact that the Leave campaign has said very little about the environment is telling. First on the list of the Leave campaign’s main arguments about the environment published by the BBC is that environmental regulation can be “unnecessary” and can “burden” businesses. If protecting the environment is something that you do deem necessary, you are unlikely to be convinced and might read on to see if voting Leave could be good for the environment.

You are unlikely to find the following arguments any more compelling. They state that the UK would still be able to buy electricity and gas from abroad, and don’t touch on issues such as agriculture, water pollution, or climate change.

An expert review by academics from Universities of York and East Anglia examines the environmental impacts of Britain’s membership of the EU since 1973, and explores the impacts of voting to Remain or to Leave. [1] The report highlights that the relationship between the UK and the EU is two-way; a decision about whether to Remain should not only be about the effect on the UK, but also about how the UK’s membership affects the EU. The UK’s voice in EU negotiations has at times strengthened environmental policies (for example on greenhouse gas emission reductions) and at times weakened policy (for example on fracking, where the UK opposes regulation).

The 1999 Landfill Directive has led to the institution of recycling services, the 2009 Renewable Energy directive has stimulated growth of cleaner energy generation, and the 2010 Energy Labelling initiative mandated the use of stricter and clearer labels on white goods (e.g. refrigerators) in the UK. These measures affect the ecological footprint of homes and businesses, as well as public services like the NHS, and serve to raise public awareness about environmental issues.

A recent report from RCPCH and RCP highlights that outdoor air pollution is responsible for respiratory and cardiovascular morbidity, as well as an estimated 40,000 deaths per year in the UK. Had the UK met the targets in the EU’s 2008 Air Quality directive, this burden of morbidity and mortality would have been reduced. EU targets are legally binding, and the financial penalties for not meeting the targets make such breeches of EU standards less common.

The EU’s record on the environment is far from perfect, and neither is the UK’s record on influencing EU environmental policy. So as with many other issues, the story about the EU could be spun in different ways. Yet there is something different about environmental issues. Environmental issues cross borders and will always cross borders. We can attempt to limit the movement of people, but we’ll never confine air pollution or climate change within countries. It is hard to see how common goods and shared challenges can be addressed by countries working in isolation.

In the televised election debate, Boris Johnson claimed that Brexit offers the opportunity to “take back control”; a statement which is founded on a politics of fear and segregation. A politics of hope will focus on health as a goal for national and international policy. The determinants of health and wellbeing are not defined solely within a country’s borders. The “Another Europe is Possible” campaign highlights that important international issues such as the environment, taxes on international transactions, and peace between and within nations are best addressed by working together in EU negotiations.

In “the most important decision that the electorate has to make for the next generation” (David Cameron), the greatest threat to health of the 21st century must take centre stage. Transitioning to sustainable renewable energy and sustainable societies will require will require innovation, long term and joined up thinking and all the solidarity that the EU can provide.

  1. C. Burns, A. Jordan, V. Gravey, N. Berny, S. Bulmer, N. Carter, R. Cowell, J. Dutton, B. Moore S. Oberthür, S. Owens, T. Rayner, J. Scott and B. Stewart (2016) The EU Referendum and the UK Environment: An Expert Review. How has EU membership affected the UK and what might change in the event of a vote to Remain or Leave? Executive Summary e-copies of this booklet can be downloaded here.

Sarah Walpole is a medical registrar, currently working at the Sustainable Healthcare Education network and Freedom from Torture.

Competing interests: Sarah was the Green Party parliamentary candidate for Hull East in the 2015 elections.