The BBC hates unoccupied airtime. On radio, we only get “dead air” just before the bongs that precede the main news. Then, of course, it isn’t really unoccupied airtime at all: it is vibrating with the anxiety of the nation, waiting to be told that Big Ben is still there, war over North Korea has not broken out, we do not yet have to eat chlorinated chicken.

So the two minutes of “slow radio” introduced into Sunday morning’s Broadcasting House is a small revolution. It is not silence, but it isn’t really “radio” either. It is a two-minute clip of something unremarkable, that turns out, as you listen to it, to be something beautiful. Once it was a train clicking over points. Once it was a waterwheel turning. Once it was a dog sleeping. The listener is drawn into it. It becomes deeply restful. It is probably doing more for the nation’s mental health than the rest of the BBC’s output taken together.

Last Sunday (July 30), it was a cascade of birdsong from a forest in Poland. The Białowieża Forest is one of the few remaining primeval forests on the planet, and home to numerous species including bear, lynx, bison, and rare birds such as the black stork, pygmy owl and three-toed woodpecker. Logging, which started more than a year ago with encouragement from the Polish Environment Ministry, had just been stopped. It was stopped on the orders of the European Union.

The EU is much concerned with the environment, although, founded on the desire to make war between Germany and France impossible by uniting their coal and steel industries, it came late to the natural world. In the 1950s and 60s, the level of environmental awareness was not high. This was a time when organo-phosphates were used with abandon and nitrogen was heaped on to soil to “boost fertility”, sewage was pumped into the sea, smog blanketed London at regular intervals and only a wild eccentric would ask for organic vegetables.

In the 1970s the EEC began to take piecemeal measures to combat pollution. They paved the way for Article 25 of the Single European Act of 1987, of which the first aim was “to preserve, protect and improve the quality of the environment.”

That is still the first aim of Article 191 of the Lisbon Treaty.  The three aims that follow are: “(2) Protecting human health; (3) prudent and rational utilisation of natural resources; and (4) promoting measures at international level to deal with regional or worldwide environmental problems, and in particular combating climate change.” (Emphasis in original.)

The EU directives on the environment cast a wide net: habitat, birds, flooding, groundwater, landfill, urban waste water, noise, recycling of electrical equipment, environmental impact of infrastructure projects, quality of bathing water, renewable energy, air quality, carbon capture, nitrate pollution, and more. They establish the “polluter pays” principle. They are incorporated into British law in various ways and with varying degrees of flexibility. They are extraordinarily thorough.

The Bathing Waters Directive (Dir.2006/7/EC) gets it right at the start: “Water is a scarce natural resource, the quality of which should be protected, defended, managed and treated as such. Surface waters in particular are renewable resources with a limited capacity to recover from adverse impacts of human activities.”

Exactly. When did we last hear such clarity from a regional water authority in Britain?

Also: “The public should receive appropriate and timely information on the results of the monitoring of bathing water quality and risk management measures… New technology that allows the public to be informed… should be applied.”

Excellent.

Then, a warning: “Since the objectives of this Directive … cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States and can be better achieved at Community level, the Community may adopt measures in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity… This Directive does not go beyond what is necessary in order to achieve those objectives.”

Aha! This is the point at which Brexiters raise the alarm. Here is interference with our liberties. Freeborn Englishmen are entitled to their dirty beaches.

There then follow many clauses on monitoring, assessment, what constitutes a “bathing season”, how many samples shall be assessed and how frequently, how bathing water shall be classified (very simply: poor, sufficient, good and excellent), what measures shall be taken if it is classed as poor, how the public should be alerted and kept informed, how the results of the monitoring are to be reported to the Commission, at what depth samples are to be taken for microbiological analysis and how the sample bottles are to be sterilised. And much more.

There are people who want Brexit so that they can roll back the EU’s regulations. From glancing at this one Directive, one can see why. One can also see why they shouldn’t get their way.

The cornerstone of the EU’s nature conservation policy are, jointly, the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC) and the Wild Birds Directive (2009/147/EC). The Habitats Directive is built around the Natura 2000 network of protected sites, which encompasses more than 18% of the EU’s land area and almost 6% of its marine territory. More than 1000 species, many of them threatened, are protected, and over 200 types of habitat. The Wild Birds Directive protects all wild birds species naturally occurring in the EU, with special concern for the habitats of endangered and migratory species.

In the UK these Directives place 283 species including otters, nightingales and pine martens under protection, and safeguard 653 natural havens including the oaks of Windsor Great Park and the woods of the Wye Valley.

The effect on the UK of the EU’s environmental legislation has been “overwhelmingly positive,” say the Friends of the Earth in a paper titled The Implications for UK Environmental Policy of a Vote to Leave the EU.

“In the 1970s and 80s the UK earned the unattractive reputation for being “the Dirty Man of Europe; we had the highest sulphur dioxide emissions in the EU and our seas were akin to open sewers. Policy was dictated by so-called ‘sound science’, with action taken only when incontrovertible damage had been proved… Policy makers would react to problems only as they emerged, in a fragmented and ad hoc way. Perhaps the most damaging was the voluntaristic approach to regulation adopted, with close relations between policy-makers and those they sought to regulate.”

Membership of the EU, says FoE, has resulted in the introduction of new regulatory agencies like the National  Rivers Authority and the adoption of strict emission limits. “We have been obliged to change approaches to sewage treatment and releases of nitrates, and the quality of beaches and bathing water has improved.”

Indeed. Tourists are back on the beaches, and no longer gesturing at the sea in disgust; there are salmon and otter in the rivers. Species continue to go extinct at a horrifying rate, partly as a result of destructive farming practices, but the EU works with farmers to educate them in land use that favours greater biodiversity, and gives grants of up to £150 per hectare to encourage the return of conifer plantations to broadleaf. There are success stories: Bitterns and the Large Blue butterfly are back from the edge of extinction in the UK; there are 1600 breeding pairs of Red Kite.

The bad news is air quality. Yes, sulphur dioxide emissions have fallen, but “the UK Government is facing heavy fines over its failure to meet its obligations.”

This document was published in 2013. More on air quality below.

Anyone who read with a sinking heart the paragraph above that starts “In the 1970s and 80s…” can be forgiven, because it’s clear where we’re headed. Brexiters are nostalgic for a vanished past: this is that past. Just how much we will regress depends on what kind of Brexit we blunder into: the much-touted “Norway option” would oblige us to observe a number of EU environmental regulations, but NOT those on habitat, wild birds or bathing water. Back to dirty beaches, the shooting of birds of prey and the felling of ancient oaks? If the talks fail, as the head-bangers would like them to, we will only have to maintain those environmental standards that are forced on us by the terms of a trade deal.

The UK is perfectly capable of looking after its environment without interference from the EU, Brexiters will say. But it has shown little sign of wanting to do so. It opposed the classification of tar sands as “highly polluting,” tried to undermine energy efficiency targets, and wanted to block a pesticide ban intended to protect bees. The British Government has been taken to court twice over air quality; now, threatened with fines of £300m. by an out-of-patience European Commission, it has rushed out an announcement – which would be laughable if it were not tragic – that new diesel vehicles will be prohibited in the UK in twenty-three years’ time.

Twenty-three years? There are 23,500 premature deaths per year in Britain from nitrogen dioxide pollution caused by diesel traffic, many of them deaths of children.

Well, they shouldn’t be so selfish. All they have to do is hang on until 2040 and they will be perfectly all right.

The far-right Polish government, which bears more than a passing resemblance to our own, maintains a two-finger stance towards the EU although it is highly unlikely that it would seek, like Britain, to leave (it gets too much in subsidies).  Latest reports are that it has returned to logging in Białowieża Forest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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