What would an EU exit mean for UK renewables?

With anti-EU sentiment running wild across Britain, a referendum on membership appears to be inevitable. An exit from the international body could be detrimental for the UK’s booming energy sector – not to mention the environment.

The Bloated Scapegoat

When times get tough, politicians are always looking for a bloated scapegoat at which they can point a sanctimonious finger or two. So, when the global economy went into meltdown mode in 2008, it was hardly surprising contempt shifted to the tax-restrictive fiscal policies of Europe’s far-reaching governing body. Time and time again, EU leaders chastised the austerity-driven recovery taking place in Britain. They argued the corrective policies being dished out by the UK’s coalition government were a case of ‘too much, too soon’, and warned of a serious implications.

EU Debate

Six years on, naysayers in the European Commission have had to eat their words. Britain’s economy is one of few in the collective that’s returned to growth, and the country is back on track. Yet even as the nation’s financial health has started to improve, the country’s distaste for Brussels has worryingly continued to fester. The EU’s lack of financial credibility has proven the new battle cry amongst Britain’s deep-seeded anti-European lobby – so much so that far-right political upstarts UKIP were able to snag a historic victory in the European elections. They would see Britain freed from the supposed chains of a far-reaching foreign government, and out of the EU for good. Yet in the process, they very well may destroy Britain’s brittle environmental policy agenda.

The Dirty Man Of Europe

Thirty years ago, Britain was considered the ‘dirty man of Europe’. Its residents suffered the continent’s highest sulphur dioxide emissions, Victorian-era pollution caps and reactionary legislation that did little to curb growing energy demand. EU membership has helped to push all that to the wayside. Thanks to the influence of greener neighbour states, Britain has spent the last two decades installing new cabinet posts and creating agencies to address environmental concerns and regulate problems that have since been pushed to the forefront of international politics.

The quality of Britain’s drinking and bathing water have improved drastically due to EU legislation on sewage treatment and the release of nitrates – which has gone on to boost tourism. But more importantly, this ‘europeanisation’ has forced a fledgling DECC to adopt strict emissions limits for UK companies that boast a clear judicial process for implementation and enforcement.

EU Debate

Energy companies have been particularly impacted by changes. For starters, European legislation such as the Large Combustion Plant Directive has single handedly driven the uptake of abatement technology that’s revolutionised the cleanliness of British power stations. We’re also saving billions on fuel, because the threat of binding road taxes has led to a significant reduction in carbon emissions from new passenger vehicles and increases in fuel efficiency. Elsewhere, the introduction of EU product standards has meant the axe for scores of energy wasting appliances. Bans on incandescent light bulbs alone should save British homes around £108 million per year by 2020.

Long story short: EU membership has pushed the UK into vastly improving its eco credentials. Is Brussels being pushy? Perhaps. Yet in doing so, EU mandates have brought the UK out of the dark ages and into the forefront of a modern debate on our relationship with the environment. In the process, that leading role has gone on to create thousands of new jobs across the country.

The UK Renewable Boom

The UK renewables sector is booming. In the past decade, it’s grown to employ over 100,000 domestic workers – with the public’s taste for clean and self-sourced energy growing by leaps and bounds each year. Nearly all of that can be accredited to EU membership. The body’s Renewable Energy Directive alone has seen the UK’s renewable energy output shoot up by over a third, thanks to mandatory capacity targets. Continental subsidies have consequently been funneled through Westminster to incentivise uptake in domestic renewables across the country. Simply put: without the EU, Britain’s green energy boom would undeniably go bust.

At the end of the day, UKIP’s divisive, anti-European rhetoric is bad for the environment and bad for business. With that in mind, it’s a shame that David Cameron has been goaded into staging an ‘in/out’ referendum on EU membership so as to appeal to his increasingly hostile base of Tory defectors. But he would do wise to ignore the populist drivel of Nigel Farage and focus on working with the EU rather than against it. An EU exit would not only marginalise Britain’s voice on the world stage, but it would increase uncertainty for UK businesses and create trading barriers. Yet above all else, an exit from the EU would likely dismantle what little environmental progress Britain has made over the past 20 years.

No one likes bureaucracy, and nobody likes being told what to do. Yet without pushy legislation and carbon reduction targets from Brussels, Britain wouldn't have the booming renewable energy industry it has today. The world is only getting smaller – and if the UK wants to help shape the future, it can’t afford to isolate itself any further.

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