The EU and the environment in Oxfordshire
- We can’t stop pollution or climate change at our borders- but we can do something about them by working with other countries. EU rules have made our beaches, rivers and air cleaner, protected nature and wildlife and helped slow the progress of global warming.
- The EU’s Natura 2000 network recognises sites of natural importance, such as the Cothill Fen in Oxfordshire. Cothill Fen has one of the larges surviving examples of alkaline fen vegetation in central England, and is home to a number of rare insect species.
- Money from the LIFE programme also enabled the reintroduction of a reedbed in Otmoor, just ten minutes from Barton in Oxford, which is helping booming bitterns back to the UK and has even provided a temporary home for cranes.
The South East is home to an array of unique and wonderful natural habitats many of which need our protection. The EU has recognised this, creating over 60 sites of special protection in the South East, and 18 Blue Flag beaches. For British environmental organisations, our membership of the EU continues to be a vital source of funding to aid in conservation work. This means that the UK now has cleaner water, safer beaches, and thriving environments for some of our most endangered species.
Cleaner beaches and rivers
The UK was one of the slowest countries to clean up its beaches, with raw sewage still being pumped directly into the sea right up to the late 1990s. Improvement of the quality of our natural water resources has largely come about as a result of the EU's Bathing Water Directive and its various successors, plus actual or real threats of legal action from the EU, which have forced successive UK governments to clean up our rivers and beaches. Only fifty years ago the Thames was described as 'biologically dead'. Now, seals, dolphins, and even otters and seahorses are to be found in the Thames and its estuary.
The EU's Blue Flag certification, which is awarded to beaches and marinas with high environmental standards, has played a key part in making our beaches and waters clean.
In 1988, only 65% of UK beaches passed the Blue Flag requirements, but by 2014 that figure had risen to 99.5%. This is of particular importance to our region, boasting a beautiful coastline. The South East itself is home to 18 out of the 112 Blue Flag certified beaches in the UK. This has undoubtedly contributed to Kent being voted the best family holiday destination in Europe, growing the local tourist and leisure economy.
Over 29,000 people die prematurely every year in the UK because of poor air quality – and the UK government has done very little to tackle this, only taking action when forced to by the courts. On the other hand, the European Parliament has been proactive on this issue, with the Environment Committee agreeing a new national emissions ceiling. If this proposal is adopted, it could prevent 58,000 premature deaths every year in the EU and save billions in health related costs. EU regulations have already had a significant impact on the air we breathe – vehicle emissions have declined by over 80% in the last 20 years alone because of the need to meet increasingly high EU standards.
Protecting nature and wildlife
The EU has also been a driving force in the conservation and upkeep of natural habitats in the South East. It has provided both a regulatory context for conservation and significant funds to the UK to practically enable the safeguarding of important habitats. This has meant that areas of natural beauty within the South East have continued to provide a haven for wildlife. One example is the conservation project of the famous New Forest in Hampshire, which has received over £3 million in EU funding to restore the vulnerable wetland habitats there for the benefit of wildlife and people.
The EU has taken a leading role in recognising sites of natural importance through its Natura 2000 Network of which over 60 are located in the South East, such as the Thanet Coast and the Isle of Wight Downs. This recognition, along with our membership of the EU, means that the UK government has an obligation to care for these sites, and entitles us to funding from LIFE - the key environmental funding body of the EU - which holds an annual budget of over €300 million. With almost 100 projects in the South East having benefited from this funding, it’s clear that conservation has been strengthened significantly by our involvement with the EU. The LIFE fund also provides precious funding for national organisations such as The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds which received over £1.1million from LIFE to aid it with the conservation of the Little Tern - an endangered bird that counts the South East coast as one of its major habitats.
Global warming presents a real threat to our future security and prosperity. The only way we can address it is through international co-operation, as global warming is blind to borders. The EU is at the forefront of the fight to combat global warming, and in 2014, the EU as a whole agreed to cut greenhouse gases by at least 40% by 2030. The EU led the way in the development of the Kyoto Protocol and continues to put pressure on countries both inside and outside the EU to reduce their emissions and work towards a sustainable future.
What happens if we leave?
Leaving the EU would put at risk many existing conservation projects currently implemented in the UK, as well as the many others in the pipeline. At a time when government spending is being severely restricted, it is likely that many of these projects will not be taken on by the UK government. With extra legal protection removed for many of our natural areas, the minority of businesses which damage our environment would be able to evade their responsibilities with impunity. And, outside the world’s biggest trading bloc, we would lose our current ability from inside the EU to have a real influence on countries like China and India when it comes to international climate change negotiations.