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Joan Edwards

Joan Edwards is the Head of Living Seas at The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts.

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What has Europe done for nature conservation in the UK?

Posted: Tuesday 1st April 2014 by LivingSeas

European legislation is helping to improve water quality - great for wildlife, great for people (photo: Linda Pitkin)

The spectrum of European environmental legislation has grown progressively since the 1970s to become the core framework in most areas of environmental policy. It now covers air and water pollution, major aspects of climate change mitigation, waste and recycling, biodiversity conservation, the regulation of chemicals, noise, energy conservation, environmental liability and justice, marine protection and several other issues.

European environmental legislation also provides a common EU framework within which there can be considerable flexibility for tailoring approaches to specific national and regional conditions. It is now the most developed and influential body of environmental law and policy on the global stage as well as within Europe.

This has been achieved with the active support of governments from an increasingly diverse EU because it has been viewed as the most effective and efficient means of addressing much of the environmental and climate agenda – both in environmental and in economic terms. Successive British governments of all political outlooks have shared this view and the UK has exerted a significant influence on the evolution of the policy – in terms of the priorities set, the scientific evidence, the policy tools employed and some of the key measures adopted. These include the Water Framework Directive and core legislation on industrial emissions.

We need to continue to make the case for the importance of protecting and improving our environment

However in recent years, partly as a result of the economic climate and the apparent need for growth, the need for some of this legislation has come into question at both a European and UK level. 

Last year, following the review of the EU Habitats Regulations and the Government's own 'Red Tape Challenge' (a complete misnomer as environmental legislation is our green foundations providing benefits to all, not 'red tape'!), the UK Government launched its review into EU environment and climate change regulation, quickly followed by a review of the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP). These mini reviews formed part of an overall review of the Balance of Competences between the UK and the EU - an audit of what the EU does, and how this effects the UK.

Recent issues with air pollution, in particular in the east and south-east of England provide a good demonstration of this. Issues like this can only be deal with across boundaries and is an area that Europe is leading the world on. In February, the European Commission launched legal proceedings against the UK for failing to reduce levels of nitrogen dioxide air pollution. 

Whilst we agree that these EU policies can be improved, and there are certainly areas where guidance and information about the regulations could be made clearer and more accessible, it is clear that many of the decisions we take about the environment have huge impacts, not just nationally. Air and water quality can have far reaching impacts, as well as decisions on the quota of fish that we take from our seas. One of the biggest challenges facing us at the moment, climate change, cannot be tackled purely at a national level. We need to work in collaboration with our neighbouring countries and beyond to ensure that decisions taken have the biggest impact.

From The Wildlife Trusts point of view, what is clear is that we need to continue to make the case for the importance of protecting and improving our environment. Our environment provides us with vital services that underpin our economy. We robustly responded to all of these reviews, to highlight the importance of environmental legislation. We were clear for the need to ensure that short-term economic aims do not end up undermining our environment and ultimately, our economic future. More recently the European Commission responded to calls to slim-down its approach to regulation as opinion polls across the continent suggest that citizens feel that Brussels is out of touch with them.

The Commission’s ‘Refit’ approach – in which they plan to analyse whether bits of European legislation are over-burdensome on business – is being extended to include the withdrawal of important proposals to protect soils and to improve the ability of people to get access to justice on local environmental issues. The Commission have also decided to take yet another look at the fitness of an area where in our view the case is already settled; the Natura 2000 network established by the Birds and Habitats Directives.

This network of protected sites plays a crucial role in protecting wild places and wildlife in the UK and across Europe. Just last year, a thorough review by Defra in the UK showed that ‘in the large majority of cases the implementation of the Directives is working well, allowing both development of key infrastructure and ensuring that a high level of environmental protection is maintained’. In fact, if there is a problem, it is a lack of proper implementation, which means that the full benefits aren’t achieved for people, wildlife and even planners. We fully hope and expect that the European Commission will come to the same conclusion.

So far, none of these reviews have resulted in weakening any of the existing environmental legislation that we rely so heavily on. However the threat is still there and becomes more worrying and political as we head towards the election of a new group of MEPs in May 2014 and appointment of a new President of the European Commission in November 2014.

We quizzed a panel of MEPs on environmental issues! 

On Tuesday 29 April, The Wildlife Trusts, WWF and RSPB jointly organised a UK hustings event for the 2014 European Elections chaired by Camilla Cavendish, Associate Editor of The Sunday Times.

The audience were able to quiz the following panel of MEPs:

• Stuart Agnew MEP, UKIP
• Chris Davies MEP, Liberal Democrat
• Julia Girling MEP, Conservative
• Linda McAvan MEP, Labour
• Keith Taylor MEP, Green

Responses from MEPs on how their party will manage environmental issues can be listened to here.

Read LivingSeas's latest blog entries.

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