First Environment Policy Review highlights need to speed up reforms

Dec. 11, 2003
The European Commission has recently adopted its first Environment Policy Review.

Dec. 11, 2003 -- The European Commission has recently adopted its first Environment Policy Review. The main purpose of the Review is to report on developments since 2001 and highlight current priority issues in the EU and national environmental policies.

The Review emphasises the need to speed up the pace of reforms to improve the state of the environment in Europe and internationally. The key message is the necessity to achieve a decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures in line with sustainable development. The Review will become a central Commission instrument to regularly follow up and review EU environmental policy, address major implementation gaps and identify new policy challenges.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström said: "This first Environment Policy Review fills a major gap. For the first time, we have the systematic overview and analysis we need to check where we stand when it comes to environmental policies in the EU. This will help us create better policies and achieve sustainable development, i.e., promote economic growth without impairing environmental protection and social cohesion. The Review, which shows that we are committed to transparency and accountability, will also be an important instrument for our work with the other institutions and Member states. And it will be a handy tool for citizens to see what we do to protect the environment."

The Review sets out the new political context of EU environmental policy since the adoption of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy in 2001 and the entry into force of the 6th Environment Action Programme in 2002. It examines the most pressing threats to the environment and policy responses at EU level to date.

It outlines the environmental policy mix required to make sustainable development a reality. Particular emphasis will need to be placed on the three cross-cutting objectives which underpin environmental policy, and which can be summarised as the three "I"s: Integration of environmental concerns into other policies, Implementation and Information.

Finally the Review considers the particular challenge of enlargement and developments at an international level.

Key messages

The Review stresses the necessity for increased efforts to decouple economic growth from environmental pressures in line with the objectives set out in the 6th Environment Action Programme - the EU's environmental policy agenda until 2012 - and the EU Sustainable Development Strategy. These efforts should focus on:

* ensuring efficient implementation of existing environmental legislation
* strengthening policy coherence and integration, including through increased use of market-based instruments
* basing our policies on sound knowledge and information
* continuing to promote sustainable development on a global scale
* making a success of enlargement.

The challenge of the years to come is to develop balanced policies that will stimulate growth and employment and at the same time protect the environment and human health from increasing pressures, to the benefit of current and future generations.

The Review illustrates the mix of instruments and approaches needed to address this challenge. Together with a renewed emphasis on integration, there is a need for larger and more systematic use of market-based instruments as a way to minimise the cost of environmental protection and to reduce the implementation gap.

It is also becoming increasingly clear that certain environmental objectives cannot be achieved based on EU action alone. What is needed is a joint effort from all levels of government in the EU and the complementary use of policy instruments to maximise synergies between action at EU, national, regional and local levels.

Progress made on priority issues

Climate change

Internationally, the EU has played a leading role in developing a multilateral response to global warming and implementing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. Under the Protocol, the EU has to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8% between 1990 and the commitment period 2008-2012.

The European Climate Change Programme launched in 2000 has been the key vehicle to identify measures to curb climate change. A major landmark measure is the EU emissions trading scheme, which, when implemented from 2005 onwards, will help reduce climate change at a lower cost to industry.

Despite this important progress, the situation remains of concern: considering the measures already in place at EU level and in the Member States as well as those that are currently planned, the EU as a whole and nine Member States will miss their Kyoto targets. Therefore, it is crucial that Member States swiftly implement the relevant EU measures recently set in place and in parallel take additional action, notably through advancing integration of climate change into other policy areas.

Nature and bio-diversity

The EU has endeavoured to develop policy initiatives consistent with the ambitious objective of halting the decline in bio-diversity in Europe by 2010. However, progress has been mixed.

The two major pieces of legislation in this field, the Birds and the Habitats Directive, have recorded serious implementation difficulties. Infringements relating to the two Directives account for over a quarter of the instances where the Commission has taken legal action against Member States.

The Commission has therefore stepped up efforts to provide guidance to Member States (for example on sustainable hunting) and to make better use of existing financial instruments to support nature conservation objectives.

A key issue for the near future will be to ensure adequate funding for the management of Natura 2000 sites. In addition, it will be necessary to develop policy-relevant indicators on bio-diversity to get a clearer picture of current trends, which the Commission is in the process of doing together with the European Environment Agency.

On the integration front, the overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, in June 2003, which will decouple subsidies from production levels, is a significant achievement in terms of nature protection. Also encouraging in this respect is the reform of Common Fisheries Policy.

Environment and health

Protection of human health from environmental threats has been a constant priority for EU environmental policy. In October, the Commission put forward the proposal for a new chemicals policy under which industry will have to provide information on the effects of chemicals on human health and the environment as well as on safe ways of handling them.

Known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals), the new regulatory system will make a major contribution to improving health and environmental protection while at the same time maintaining the competitiveness of the chemicals industry and fostering innovation.

The Commission has also initiated the development of a new strategy that will tackle environmental risks for human health in a broader sense. While a comprehensive body of legislation addresses the vast majority of single pollutants, there is little knowledge about the combined effects of the various toxic agents in the environment, in particular on vulnerable groups of society such as children. Yet incidents of diseases caused by environmental factors are increasing. Preliminary WHO estimates suggest that almost a third of the global burden of disease can be attributed to these factors.

The Environment and Health Strategy initiated in June seeks to generate and pool knowledge about the interaction between the environment and health to strengthen EU capacity for policymaking in this area.

Resources management

Finally the Review describes the policy developments in the area of resource management. Recent work has focused on the development of a strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources, which will assess how far policy choices are compatible with the overall decoupling objective. The elaboration of this strategy will build upon a number of closely linked initiatives, such as the Integrated Product Policy, IPP, the strategy on waste prevention and recycling (under development) and the Action Plan on Environmental Technologies, which will soon be presented.

The Environment Policy Review in prospect

The 2003 Environment Policy Review is the first of a series. It should also be placed within the context of the Lisbon Strategy on economic and social renewal launched in 2000. The Lisbon Strategy was supplemented by a third, environmental, pillar following the adoption of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy at the Gothenburg European Council in 2001. The Review will contribute to consolidating the environmental pillar of sustainable development in that context.

Over time, the Environment Policy Review will combine the examination of EU action with a review of main developments in Member States. To this end, one of the suggestions of the Review is to introduce the so-called "Open Method of Co-ordination" in the environmental field, with a view to mobilising EU institutions and Member States in a joint effort to better define common objectives to achieve common goals. Future editions of the Review will be instrumental in advancing this process.