What's the EU done for us?

7th April 2014


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Tom Atterton

Commissioners and MEPs highlight the outgoing EU administration's achievements in environment policy

Europe goes to the polls in May to elect 751 members to the European parliament. Those MEPs will represent more than 500 million people in 28 member states for the next five years. 2015 will see more changes, with the next group of EU commissioners appointed. While further stabilisation of Europe’s financial systems will be high on the agenda, environment issues will also to require the attention of the new parliament and commission.

Protecting nature and strengthening ecological resilience, boosting sustainable, resource-efficient, low-carbon growth, and effectively addressing environment-related threats to health are among nine priority objectives up to 2020 listed in the 7th environment action programme, which was formally agreed in November 2013.

The programme builds on the strategic initiatives developed over the past few years, such as the EU roadmaps on resource efficiency and the low-carbon economy. According to the commission, achieving the objectives set out in the programme will require better implementation of EU environment law, cutting-edge science, investment in environment and climate change policies, and improving the way in which environmental concerns and requirements are reflected in other policies.

In the past five years, the European parliament, has achieved much to improve the environment and tackle climate change. It introduced stricter rules on industrial emissions, mandatory energy-saving measures and tougher targets for the collection and recycling of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE). The commission has also been at the forefront of negotiations to agree a successor to the Kyoto protocol.

To discover what those involved consider the most important policy achievements since parliament was elected in 2009 and commissioners were appointed in 2010, the environmentalist asked MEPs Chris Davies and Fiona Hall, and commissioners Connie Hedegaard and Janez Potocnik to select their favourites.

Fiona Hall

Fiona Hall is MEP for North East England and a member of the European parliament’s committee on industry, research and energy (ITRE). She views the recast Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (2010/31/EC) (EPBD), which was adopted in May 2010 and aims to cut energy consumption in buildings, as a major achievement of the current administration.

Hall explains: “The EPBD requires for the first time at EU level that in future all new buildings are ‘nearly zero energy’ buildings; it also puts the first requirements for energy efficiency improvements on existing buildings when they undergo major renovation. Existing buildings are one of the biggest sources of CO2 emissions and have the greatest potential for cost-effective energy efficiencies, so it is important to tackle this area.”

Hall also cites the Energy Efficiency Directive (2012/27/EC) (EED) as a key achievement. She was lead negotiator on the Directive for the ALDE – the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe – in the European parliament.

“The EED covers the entire EU economy from demand to supply side, with a particular focus on existing buildings and end users,” she says. “It also puts provisions on demand response in EU energy policy for the first time. Of the bloc’s three 2020 targets, the 20% energy efficiency target is the only one not on track – the EED aims to rectify that.”

Another area in which Hall has played a leading role was the recent review of carbon emissions from passenger cars, which confirmed the 2020 target of 95g CO2/km and how to reach it. Hall was the rapporteur – a “liaison officer” for a committee, who presents reports to the plenary sessions of parliament and follows proposals through the legislative process – on the ITRE opinion on the review of the 2009 Regulation (443/2009) on CO2 emissions from cars.

“The outcome of the review gives the EU car industry investment certainty, and will stimulate further innovation and development of zero emission cars, such as electric vehicles,” she says.

Chris Davies

In May 2013, MEPs and representatives of EU governments and the European commission agreed major reforms to the EU common fisheries policy. According to Chris Davies, MEP for North West England, this reform could arguably be the parliament’s biggest green policy achievement, despite it not being primarily handled by its environment committee. Similarly, Davies praises the EED, which was led by the ITRE committee and aims to curb energy demand across the bloc, and must be transposed by member states by 5 June 2014.

In terms of policies that the environment committee has helped to bring to fruition, Davies and his parliamentary team highlight several pieces of legislation in which the committee and MEPs played pivotal roles. The first is the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), which applied in the UK to new industrial installations from 7 January 2013 and existing ones from 7 January 2014. The IED imposes stricter limits on air, soil and water pollution from around 50,000 industrial sites across Europe. “The European parliament fought successfully for higher common standards in the IED,” says Davies.

Another policy in which parliament significantly strengthened the draft proposals, says Davies, was in combating global deforestation by making importers responsible for not selling products from illegally logged forests and by putting in place a traceability requirement (Regulation 995/2010).

Davies also says parliament has been instrumental in ensuring that the EU will have the most comprehensive legislation in the world on reducing fluorinated gases. On 12 March, MEPs backed new rules that had already been informally agreed with EU ministers and which will reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbon gases by 79% by 2030. “This legislation is likely to set the standard all over the world and spur global action,” he argues.

Davies believes MEPs should also take credit for the recast WEEE Directive (2012/19/EU) and the recent agreement on revisions to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive. “Thanks to a strong position by parliament, member states will be obliged to collect and recycle more discarded WEEE, while MEPs also made it harder for unscrupulous operators to ship e-waste illegally out of the EU,” says Davies. “EIA is a key tool in environmental policy and it will now be modernised and strengthened – for example, by widening its scope and raising the requirements on conflicts of interest and independence of experts.”

Connie Hedegaard

Climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard argues that the consideration given to climate change in the EU budget covering 2014–20 as one of the most significant achievements of the current European commission and parliament.

“One-fifth of the budget’s €960 billion will be devoted to climate-related policies. Compared with the previous budget this is almost a threefold increase,” she says.

“It is a completely new way to design a budget. To achieve this increase, emissions mitigation and climate adaptation actions will be integrated into all the major EU spending programmes, in particular regional development, energy, transport, research and the common agricultural policy.”

The commission recently put forward climate and energy goals for 2030, including cutting greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions from the bloc by 40% and sourcing 27% of energy from renewable sources. The proposed targets would replace the existing “20-20-20” objectives, which require the EU to cut GHGs by 20% against 1990 levels. Hedegaard says the 2030 proposals will require the bloc to take bold climate action while ensuring the future competitiveness of the European economy.

“These goals will improve the predictability for companies that create jobs and for the energy sector to ensure stable energy supplies for Europe at the lowest possible cost,” she believes. “The strong emphasis to produce more clean energy locally will help to reduce the gigantic energy bill that Europe spends to import fossil fuels – which currently stands at around €1 billion every single day.”

She also notes that the commission’s plans to reduce GHG emissions by 80% by the middle of the century – set out in its roadmap for moving to a competitive low-carbon economy in 2050 – has for the first time presented a “vision of how Europe can cost-efficiently achieve the transformation to a clean, competitive and environment-friendly society, while following the scientific advice to reduce global warming”.

Hedegaard, who was previously a politician and journalist in Denmark, was a member of the Danish government that hosted the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks (COP15) and has been lead negotiator for the commission at subsequent COPs. She is also keen to endorse the EU’s leadership in the international negotiations to deliver a successor to the Kyoto protocol.

“At the initiative of the EU and the developing countries most vulnerable to climate change, agreement was reached at the Durban climate change conference [COP17] in December 2011 to launch negotiations on a new global climate agreement covering all countries,” she says. “The new agreement is to be adopted by 2015 in Paris and to enter into force in 2020.”

Janez Potocnik

Janez Potocnik is the commissioner for the environment. He points out that Europe’s economic growth needs to be less dependent on the intensive use of resources. “Resource efficiency and innovation are essential to improving Europe’s competitiveness and creating jobs,” he says.

The commissioner also highlights the high degree of protection that EU measures afford environmental media across the continent. “For these reasons, protecting our natural capital, increasing resource efficiency and ensuring that existing rules are applied have been high on the agenda of this commission,” he says.

Potocnik maintains that positive trends in shifting the EU into a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy can already be seen. “Moving to a circular economy and a recycling society is a key component of this… [and] this is why we set out a vision for 2050, milestones for 2020, and a comprehensive framework for action based on a broad definition of resources – from metals and minerals to ecosystems, biodiversity, water, air, land and soil.”

Saving Europe’s natural capital is the aim of the commission’s biodiversity strategy (adopted in April 2012), which, says Potocnik, is underpinned by actions to help Europe reach its goal of halting the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services by 2020.

“These actions were set in motion during this mandate and they cover a wide range of issues. These include: full implementation of EU nature legislation to protect biodiversity; better protection for ecosystems, and more use of green infrastructure; more sustainable agriculture and forestry; and a bigger EU contribution to averting global biodiversity loss.”

Potocnik, who was previously commissioner (from 2004 to 2010) for science and research and a Slovenian government minister, also highlights three forthcoming measures that he believes will have an enormous positive impact. “To combat marine litter and plastic waste, we have proposed legislation to reduce by 80%, or ban altogether, the 100 billion plastic bags we use and discard every year in the EU,” he says of the first.

A second measure concerns air pollution, which Potonik describes as one of Europe’s biggest silent killers. “We have opened legal cases against 17 member states [including the UK] and proposed new measures aimed at saving lives and protecting people’s health.

Finally, Potocnik regards the planned review of waste strategy as significant. “In the coming months, we will propose a major policy review and initiatives on waste. Already, during this term we have seen Europe’s recycling rates increase and thousands of illegal landfills close as a result of legal action we have taken.”

Header image source: Getty

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