Environmental regulations have been a central part of European co-operation since the 1970s. Economic growth must go hand-in-hand with a cleaner environment which allows people to fully enjoy the benefits of a higher standard of living, through clean air, water, areas of natural beauty and better health.
Pollution crosses borders, through undermining our natural environment, can actually destroy the basis for economic growth and well-being - the nuclear accident at Chernobyl being the most dramatic example. We do not see a trade-off between the economy and the environment: on the contrary, the two are inextricably interlinked, and the single market must continue to be underpinned by strong environmental legislation.
EU environmental laws have been agreed not only to protect consumers but also to “ensure the careful use of natural resources, to minimise adverse environmental impacts of production and consumption, and to protect biodiversity and natural habitats.”
EU environmental legislation covers a wide range of fields. The most prominent are:
- Air quality - Agreeing limits to the amount of toxic air pollutants which can be emitted in member states, such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide.
- Water quality - Improving the state of our water supplies, from river basins to drinking water to bathing water.
- Chemicals - Ensuring the most harmful chemicals, including the worst pesticides, are banned in the EU, and that new chemicals must go through a robust assessment process before being approved.
- Biodiversity - Legislation which protects rare birds and creates a network of special protected habitats, which cover 18% of the EU's land area and 6% of its marine area. In 2011, there were 239 Special Areas of Conservation in Scotland designed to protect 56 types of habitat, and 153 Special Protection Areas for 81 species of bird.
- Waste - Setting targets to reduce significantly the amount of waste sent to landfill, improve EU recycling rates and create a "waste hierarchy" to ensure that as little is wasted and as much re-used as possible.
- Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) - Requiring that the most major transport, energy and other projects undergo EIA's before they can be approved.
The EU also funds environmental projects across Europe through the LIFE programme. Since 1992, LIFE has co-financed over 4000 projects with over €3.4 billion from the EU budget. This includes projects in the UK: up to €30 million being provided in January 2016 to help the UK implement River Basin Management Plans which should help to improve water quality and prevent flooding.
An example of how sustained EU action on the environment can produce real results is bathing water quality. Since 1976, EU legislation has required member states to both monitor and clean up bathing water (both inland and coastal) in their territory: this covers over 21,000 locations throughout the EU. Improvements have been dramatic: for inland bathing water, in 1991 less than 40% of sites were considered of excellent quality, but by 2014, 78% reached this standard. 2014 saw 95% of all EU bathing water locations meet minimum standards, with 83% rated as excellent.
Much of EU environmental legislation is based on international guidelines and standards, such as standards of drinking water and recommendations on nitrate levels. If the UK were to leave the EU, these standards would still apply. This is particularly relevant if the UK still wanted access to the EU single market: Norway, although not an EU member, must implement large parts of EU environmental legislation, such as on pesticides and the Nitrates Directive. Norway is also required to implement the REACH Directive on chemicals, and all without a voice in its formation and reform.
We believe that Scotland's interests lie in working within the framework of European environmental legislation and, through being a full member of the EU, to help to shape it. By doing so we not only continue to enjoy the benefits of these regulations, but our exporters gain economically from only having to follow one set of regulations instead of 28.
 See the website of DG Environment for more information.