The EU Referendum, the Environment and #GreenArts

The EU referendum: what might it mean for the environment and how might that affect the arts and creative sector?

I think we can all agree that the planet is round. And that atmospheric circulation in the troposphere keeps things moving – round. The planet is an organism; I breathe oxygen that might have been generated half a world away, in an ocean or a forest. So in this context national borders aren’t really relevant. The really big issues – particularly the environment - need cooperation that works beyond political boundaries. Global governance structures are struggling to deal with climate change and the environment, but they are all we have; and in this area the European Union has taken a necessary lead. The referendum will impact on the arts in key areas - freedom of movement for artists and other creative professionals; cross-border collaboration; copyright, copyright reform, and the single European market; and arts funding. It will also have a significant impact on the environment.

1. The UK has a long and proud tradition of arts and cultural expression that is entwined with our environmental heritage. The English countryside and its flora and fauna has inspired writers, musicians, painters, film makers and other artists for centuries as both backdrop and actor, from Shakespeare and Ingrid Pollard to These New Puritans and Jez Butterworth. While a part of this fascination has always stemmed from the changing of the landscape, some of this change is now occurring on an unprecedented scale, erasing cultural and natural heritage at breakneck pace. This goes beyond the natural world as muse: biodiversity loss is now so serious that most UK species are in decline, with up to 1 in 10 species at risk of extinction [1]. This is not only having an impact on our cultural landscape, but also on our economic and, critically, our ethical landscape as well. Much of the legal protection currently afforded to wildlife and habitats is tied up with EU legislation: how would the UK pastoral change in the case of a ‘Leave’ vote?  

2. Equally urgently, we are currently at a turning point in the fight against irreversible climate change. The Paris Agreement, the international accord on climate change reached by 195 nations at the COP21 conference in December 2015, aims to limit increases in global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. But to translate these agreements and plans into meaningful action will require political strength of will; investor certainty and long-term policy frameworks; research and development into new low-carbon technologies; and a lot of very rapid investment (in this decade) into renewable energy and other infrastructure for the transition to a low-carbon economy. The arts and creative industries depend as much on this infrastructure as every other industry, and in many ways our capacity to act is tied up with broader investment and policy decisions. Much investment currently available to the arts, for example for refitting buildings to higher energy efficiency standards, is distributed via EU funds with few direct parallels nationally. On the global policy stage, the UK currently negotiates as part of the EU bloc, and participates in shared EU policy frameworks and programmes for achieving a global peak in carbon emissions and subsequent reductions. What are the risks of a ‘Leave’ vote in creating policy uncertainty, time lost in renegotiating climate policy, and shaking investor confidence at this crucial moment in time?

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has published a report stating that ‘the overwhelming view of our witnesses was that EU membership has been positive for the UK environment. None of the witnesses to our enquiry, even those who made criticisms, made an environmental case for leaving the European Union.’ [2] Environmental charities, green businesses, spokespeople and politicians active in climate policy are overwhelmingly in support of remaining in the EU on environmental grounds. Friends of the Earth, the Wildlife Trust, Greenpeace and other charities were all warned by the Charity Commission for potentially contravening political neutrality guidance after openly campaigning for an ‘In’ vote [3]. They responded by stating that the case for staying ‘In’ is so strong on environmental grounds that they could be accused of failing their charitable objectives if they did not engage. The Charity Commission subsequently revised its earlier guidance, stating that charities could campaign for ‘In’ or ‘Out’ provided it is relevant to their charitable objectives [4]. Where and how arts organisations and creative businesses would like to and feel able to engage is of course up to individual organisations, but we have attempted to pull together some of the key arguments in the debate around the environment and climate change in the briefing attached to this blog.

We at Julie’s Bicycle are deeply concerned about the impact a ‘Leave’ vote could have from an environmental perspective. 

  • Leaving the EU at this crucial climate change juncture could seriously destabilise the UK’s policy response and, with the prospect of at least several years of uncertainty, undermine the much-needed rapid investment in renewable energy and infrastructure that a successful low carbon transition requires. It would also jeopardise the UK’s leadership in global climate policy negotiations by isolating the country just when unprecedented international cooperation is needed.
  • Leaving the EU would risk the past 40 years of environmental protection legislation in the UK and the resulting benefits for habitats, wildlife, and human health and well-being. Some of these already compromised protections could be lost more or less overnight, whilst others could be weakened or rolled back entirely by UK parliament over the coming years – a risk we are particularly concerned about under the guise of ‘cutting red tape’. Some of this so-called ‘red tape’ has been instrumental at setting standards for air and water quality, stemming the loss of habitats and species, and ensuring we do not erode our vital natural heritage that is inseparable from our cultural heritage.

Julie’s Bicycle charitable objectives centre on promoting sustainable development [5]: for the reasons listed above, we believe this is best achieved IN the EU. We are working on shaping a collective artistic response to a challenge that crosses borders: this is a time to strengthen bridges, not dismantle them.

The briefing pulls together additional background and resources for those interested in reading more.

Image credit: Lucy + Jorge Orta, Antartica Village, 2007, Photo: Thierry Bal

[1] Source
[2] Source [PDF]
[3] Source 
[4] Source
[5] Source

Disclaimer: Julie’s Bicycle has been in receipt of funding for a number of EU projects in recent years, including GALA under Europe Culture funding, EE MUSIC under Intelligent Energy Europe funding, and Culture Change under European Regional Development funding. Additionally, we have worked with a number of arts organisations who are also in receipt of European funding for their programming under various EU funds, and for building/refit work under funds distributing ERDF money such as RE:FIT London.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of Julie’s Bicycle only and do not represent the opinions of the Arts Council England or any other funder or client of the charity.

Sustaining Creativity