by Tom Idle — The people of the UK could wake up 24 June and find themselves in a very different political landscape. The European Union (EU) Referendum taking place on 23 June poses a question – whether Britain should leave or remain in the EU – that has truly divided the country, sparking conversations and igniting debates as to the pros and cons of being a part of a 27-nation collective.
The likely outcome is unknown, with opinion polls suggesting it is too close to call and the bookies edging only slightly better odds for a flutter on ‘remain’.
While immigration and the economy have dominated the media narrative, the impact on social and environmental issues should the UK choose to get out of the EU – to Brexit – cannot be overlooked.
If the prime minister David Cameron and his remain campaign is to be believed, Brexit will surely trigger economic uncertainty, as markets close and Britain slouches its way to the back of the export queue. Of course, it has been widely argued that the last time the UK was reeling from an economic downturn, back in 2008, the corporate sustainability movement benefited hugely. “The fall out of ‘casino capitalism’ has taught us the value of having values and prompted businesses to rethink their higher purpose…Much of this has been achieved not despite economic upheaval, but precisely because of it,” says Brunswick’s director of global business and society, Phil Drew pointing to stronger Dow Jones Sustainability index scores achieved since the crash.
But the real concern among activists and campaigners everywhere is how the Conservative government might rip the guts out of environmental regulation should the UK no longer have the EU overseeing planetary protection laws. “If you really think the UK is going to maintain its environmental legislation, you haven’t been paying attention to what’s been going on,” says Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. “We have a prime minister who wants to get rid of what he considers to be ‘green crap’ and have a bonfire of regulation.
“The government has instructed its MEPs to obstruct laws to improve inspections on the real world emissions of vehicles. And, in Boris Johnson, you have a man that doesn’t even believe climate change is caused by human activity.”
Lucas, like many others in the ‘remain’ camp, are keen to point to the relative success of the Paris Accord reached last Christmas as evidence of EU membership being crucial in taking a strong position on tackling climate change. Dealing with issues such as air pollution – a cross-border problem by its very nature – can only be dealt with at a European level is another common argument. “There are 40,000 premature deaths caused by air pollution in the UK ever year,” says Lucas. “50% of the particulate matter comes from emissions created by other European countries. That’s why the clean air policy package is so important, with legal action looming if countries fail to deal with pollution.”
But not everybody is convinced that the EU has provided a panacea to all of our environmental woes. Michael Liebreich, the founder of New Energy Finance, the clean energy analysis business bought by Bloomberg in 2009, has been more vocal than most in challenging the perception that all good environmental things come from EU membership. “You have to look at deeds of nations, not words,” he says. “The US has made more progress on phasing out coal than any EU nations. And despite all the talk about how great Germany’s Energiewende programme is, the emissions coming from its energy sector have not budged in 17 years.”
Liebreich adds the three most important pieces of recent environmental legislation – a UK carbon floor price, a decision to phase out coal by 2025 and the Pitcairn marine reserve – were created without any interaction with the EU.
“We will solve our climate problem through innovation. But we have outsourced a lot of that innovation to the EU and it is spending Horizon 2020 money on social-economic research, rather than hard science,” he argues.
The EU membership debate also raises questions for the corporate sustainability profession, which has worked hard to legitimise itself and create business value in recent years. Like many professions, the sector benefits from the free movement of employees in the EU, enabling efficientrecruitment from a larger talent pool.
It has also prompted conversations about the role of business in the context of an ever-shifting governmental landscape at the mercy of political whims. Companies are much better placed to be creative, nimble, agile and innovative than governments. The propensity for business to taker a much bolder stance on sustainability issues than governments might well appease those fearful that Brexit will spell the end for the UK’s environmental protection efforts.
Whatever happens on 23rd June, few can dispute the economic, social and environmental value being created by corporate sustainability activities, campaigns and strategies across businesses throughout the UK – something that will need to be maintained whether voters opt to remain or Brexit.
Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons