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EU vs the environment

June 2019, Weisweiler: Germany’s most polluting brown coal power plant. Photo Aerovista Luchtfotografie/shutterstock.com.

The European Union poses as the protector of the environment – despite a disastrous record…

Is the environment, including action to mitigate the effects of climate change, at risk following Britain’s withdrawal from the EU? This, we are told, should be our main concern about the environment. The straight answer is no, it is not at all at risk. That should be obvious, yet to many it’s not.

The EU is the only national or supranational government that has the principles of free market capitalism written into its founding charter. Its default approach is that the free market works. And that is precisely why it has been a disaster for the environment. And having left – formally at least – we absolutely must not repeat its mistakes.

Let’s start with global warming. The EU loves global warming because the emissions that contribute to it cross national boundaries. That allows it to muscle in and take over from national governments. And that’s what happened with carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and the dieselgate scandal.

The origins of the diesel scandal go back to the 1970s, when the European market for heavier oil products was shrinking as households turned to natural gas for heating, and a raft of French nuclear power stations started coming onstream. Desperate for new markets, the oil industry started looking at the market for diesel cars.

As luck would have it – luck for the oil companies, that is – emission-led global warming started to become a political issue in the 1980s (it had been a scientific issue for at least a century), leading to the formation of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) in 1988. 

From an oil industry perspective it was really fortuitous: all the focus at the time was on CO2. There was no attempt to control so-called “black carbon”, sooty particles, known at the time to be harmful to health but not identified as a greenhouse emission, nor nitrogen oxides.

But with the climate panic in full swing, human health took a back seat. The EU duly switched to encouraging diesel in a big way. 

That brought us rising quantities of black carbon – not even listed as a climate problem in the UN’s Kyoto Protocol when it was adopted in 1997. Scientists now believe that black carbon from a variety of sources is second only to carbon dioxide as a contributor to global warming. It’s a killer, too.

And then there’s NOx (nitric oxide and nitrogen oxide, also nitrous oxide). For years (2000 to 2014) EU regulations and the standards known as Euro 3, 4 and 5 allowed diesels to emit three times as much NOx as petrol cars. Now – we’re on to Euro 6 – it’s just 33 per cent more. That has consequences for health and the environment. Nitric oxide and nitrogen oxide are serious atmospheric pollutants, leading to smog and acid rain. Nitrous oxide is a powerful greenhouse gas.


But 20 years ago the EU was confidently dictating policy. Diesel was given tax advantages by governments across the EU (though not in Britain), and diesel car use rocketed: in Western Europe it rose from 13.8 per cent of passenger car registrations in 1990 to 53.1 per cent in 2014.

Even now, with diesel mired in scandal, figures from European car makers say it accounted for 35.1 per cent of new car sales in the EU as a whole in 2018.

So did the EU’s shift to diesel help to reduce global warming? No, not according to two researchers from Luxembourg and Germany who looked at the total figures: they say it added to the problem, mainly because of the large number of diesels that entered the market not fitted with particulate filters. Also, they point to the higher carbon footprint involved in the production and transport of diesel.

And all the while, it turned out, the car manufacturers were fiddling their figures

Still, the oil companies are happy. And so are the European car companies, because overwhelmingly the diesel cars sold were produced by them. Japan turned to hybrid cars instead, and achieved much greater CO2 savings. 

‘European car manufacturers are now desperately trying to catch up.’

Not only that, but with hybrid and electric cars the future, Japan gained a march in technology development. After making hay for a couple of decades, the European car manufacturers are now desperately trying to catch up.

The EU banned cheat devices in 2007, but never checked to see whether they were being used. It said it left that up to national governments. UK governments have never said whether they carried out any checks. Germany, Spain, Slovakia and the Czech Republic all said they had not done so. 

There’s a revealing chart in the European Court of Auditors’ report on the scandal. It shows the divergence between test results for CO2 emissions and real-world results for new passenger cars from 2001 to 2016. In 2001, real world emissions were 7 per cent above the results from official testing. By 2016 that gap had soared to 40 per cent.

What are we left with after 20-odd years of the EU’s flagship environmental policy? An avoidable increase in global warming. A growing technological gap with Japan. Untold damage to human health. 

And large numbers of car owners in places like London who from October next year, if they live between the North and South Circular Roads and run a diesel made before 2015, will effectively be unable to able to drive the cars the government encouraged them to buy – unless they pay £4,450 a year for the privilege.


We’re left with cities like London falling foul of the EU’s pollution standards because their streets are full of cars produced and tested under the lax EU regime belching out levels of pollutants way above what the tests said they were. Some 60 per cent of the roads in Britain exceed World Health Organization pollution standards. If you live in a town or city in Britain you are 25 times as likely to die from exposure to air pollution as in a car crash.

Sickeningly, the EU is still posing as an ecowarrier holding Britain to account over its pollution record. It even initiated legal action against Britain, and other countries, for failing to fine Volkswagen!

There is a lesson here: a sovereign state charged with maintaining the health and safety of its people should never outsource its responsibilities to companies or supranational bodies – especially the EU, which has capitalism written into its constitution.

All this is ignored by organisations like Friends of the Earth. “80% of our environmental laws come from the European Union (EU). These laws may be weakened, removed, or harder to enforce if we’re outside the EU. Therefore, Brexit could pose a serious threat to our natural environment and our health,” it says. 


Friends of the Earth obviously hasn’t been reading the columns written by eco-warrior and self-proclaimed supporter of the EU George Monbiot. Here’s a selection of his thoughts on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy: June 2016 – “All the good things the EU has done for nature are more than counteracted by this bureaucratic idiocy.”  October 2018 – “I’m a remainer, but there’s one result of Brexit I can’t wait to see: leaving the EU’s common agricultural policy. This is the farm subsidy system that spends €50bn (£44bn) a year on achieving none of its objectives. It is among the most powerful drivers of environmental destruction in the northern hemisphere.” 

‘The EU banned cheat devices in 2007, but never checked to see whether they were being used.’

In a nutshell, the EU subsidises landowners by paying them for owning or using land. Just as long as they are not smallholders: you need to own at least 5 hectares, about 12 acres. Note it has to be open land, so get rid of ponds, wide hedges, trees big enough to form a canopy. As Monbiot says, it’s “a €55 billion incentive to destroy wildlife habitats”.

Friends of the Earth Scotland is equally misguided, saying, “It is largely thanks to 45 years of European laws on industrial pollution, water quality, nature protection and clean air that the environment we live in has improved.”  

Yet if that’s so, how come a Times investigation last year reported that “Dangerous pollutants in England’s waterways have reached their highest levels since modern testing began…with no river in the country now certified as safe for swimmers.”? 


And how come greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in the EU overall have been rising since 2012, with the latest official EU figures [(Table ES. 5)] for 2017 showing emissions higher than they’ve been since 2005?

Globally, around a third of all greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. Unless we get to grips with that, low or zero net carbon will remain a pipe dream. That means using all the tools at our disposal, including GM crops and gene editing.

But irrational fears have held up progress in the application of GM technology. Thirty years ago, when GM was new, the fears were more understandable; not now.

Outside Europe, GM crops have been widely planted over the past couple of decades. Currently they are used in about 12 per cent of the world’s cropland. Billions of people have eaten GM crops, multiple times, and scientists have conducted more than 130,000 studies on GM technologies, and there is no evidence of physical harm, no evidence of changes to human chromosomes, from eating GM food.

GM crops could significantly lower farming’s carbon and greenhouse footprint by reducing tillage and fertilisers and the fuels used in using them. Yet we’re still living with the EU’s ancient, 17-year-old directive on GM foods – and with the European Court of Justice’s unscientific ruling that the new CRISP-R gene editing technique falls within the ambit of that directive.

If you want to look at real, proven damage to the environment, look at the EU. If EU environmental policy is so great, how come populations of Europe’s farmland birds are in freefall – down 55 per cent in the past three decades and at their lowest since records began?

Part of the problem – just a part but an important one – is the EU’s approach to companies that transgress its laws: the remedy with the water companies is to impose financial penalties – such as the record £126 million imposed by Ofwat on Southern Water in June last year for dumping sewage onto beaches and into rivers and streams. 

The EU loves fines. They garner headlines and give the impression, the illusion, that it is doing something about pollution. Not so. Companies just treat the fines as part of the cost of doing business – and pass that cost on to the consumer. Once again, the consumer pays. 

Lock them up

There’s a lesson for the environment here. Stop fining companies, or at least stop just fining. Instead, make pollution or Volkswagen-style environmental cheating by a company a criminal offence. Lock up boards of directors. Take the profit motive out of the provision of water.

The environmental catastrophists love to talk about risk in the abstract, especially the risks of Brexit. Friends of the Earth (those false friends, again) paid good money in 2018 for a “risk analysis” of UK environmental policy post-Brexit. Note, there was no opportunity analysis.

This so-called analysis concluded, among other things, that under any Brexit scenario – from “crashing out” to a Canada-style deal – habitats and birds were at “very high risk”. How come? (Especially given that birds and habitats are demonstrably at extremely high risk inside the EU.)

Dig into the report and you will see that the “very high risk” status is not because there are any plans to tear up environmental legislation, or withdraw from the intergovernmental Ramsar Convention on wild birds. No, the authors claim “very high risk” partly because the Conservative Party is deemed to be environmentally unfriendly but mainly because the EU is not there to police our government!

That’s not a scientifically determined risk. It’s just political prejudice coupled with an assumption that the people of Britain will never demand and enforce higher environmental standards than the EU.

How can we protect the environment? When it comes to energy, keep on with nuclear, or the task will be impossible. Build more nuclear stations. Put money behind the idea of small nuclear reactors, where Britain – and Rolls Royce in particular – is a pioneer. Invest in carbon capture and storage for coal, free of the endless bureaucracy involved in getting the EU’s permission for it.

We know how not to decarbonise the economy: by exporting the carbon footprint, getting goods made abroad. That’s cheating the figures, looking good while adding hugely to the real carbon footprint.

If the EU is a disaster, what should we do to protect the environment? 

It will take political action to force the energy companies, for example, to offset all their emissions and factor that into their prices and into lower profits – after all, nuclear power operators have to factor in disposal and storage of their waste products for thousands of years…so do the same for fossil fuels.

But remember dieselgate. Leave it to the EU and its capital-friendly testing regimes and we’ll get official zero carbon but in reality pump out more of the stuff. To make real progress will take independent testing, repeated at random intervals, combined with real penalties for infringement.

Use reason not hysteria. Science not superstition. Steer clear of the EU’s regulatory clutches. Never trust a capitalist monopoly. Take control. Take it back from the EU. Take it back from capitalism. Take control for ourselves.