EC Environment Commissioner and NGOs disappointed with EU’s sustainable development strategy

According to Margot Wallström, the environmental dimension of sustainable development is now on a par with economic and social development in the Union, but described the lack of specific concrete actions as "disappointing".

Apart from the higher profile discussions with President George W. Bush which failed to secure agreement on the Kyoto Protocol, in Gothenburg the European Union agreed a sustainable development strategy amid an EU summit which was noted for placing the environment as the principal focus along with enlargement.

Under the strategy, member states will have to develop national sustainability plans, while all major EU policy proposals will be assessed for their sustainability impact, and action was either approved or proposed in the four headline areas of climate change, sustainable transport, public health and natural resources. In addition, progress in each area must be reviewed annually, using ‘headline indicators’, which are yet to be developed, but will be ready by next spring’s European Council, the EC said. Two dramatic results of the Sustainable Development Strategy will be to “unleash a new wave” of technological innovation and investment, generating growth and employment, and a truer pricing of goods to better reflect the impact on the environment of different goods and activities.

On climate change, EU leaders each reaffirmed their commitment to ratify the Kyoto Protocol by 2002, sidelining the US President and towards achieving EC targets on renewables, which were communicated last year . Days before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change had revealed a document revealing how the Protocol may be implemented, even without US involvement. It was also noted that on all of the four policy areas, but especially climate change, agreements must be secured on a global basis to achieve the most sustainable effect.

On transport, priority funding for public transport and the increased use of railways and inland waterways for freight was called for. The strategy also observes the EC’s intention to propose a framework ensuring that by 2004 the price of using different modes of transport “better reflects costs to society”.

On natural resources, the strategy pledges to ensure that the common agricultural policy contributes to “environmentally sustainable production methods”, including organic production, renewable raw materials and biodiversity protection, while the EU must seek to “decouple economic growth from resource use” by implementing an integrated product policy. On public health, new European White Paper on chemicals should be implemented before 2004 ensuring certain substances “do not lead to a significant impact” within a generation.

Speaking after the summit on 18 June, even the Environment Commissioner expressed disappointment that the strategy’s plans “are not more specific on concrete actions to promote sustainable development, and that for example our proposal for a greenhouse gas reduction target post-Kyoto an annual 1% emission reduction over 1990 levels up to 2020 was not endorsed”. Wallström emphasised, however, that the objectives and measures in the conclusions represent “a first step” and that concrete proposals put forward by the Commission “remain on the table”. Included in these were proposals to phase-out subsidies, such as the much-criticised Common Agricultural Policy and for the re-orientation of Structural Funds spending away from road-building. The Commissioner also warned that the strategy can only achieve so much and that “it is individual citizens, business and local initiatives and authorities who will have to make the necessary changes in production and consumption patterns”.

According to the largest federation of environmental organisations in Europe, European Environmental Bureau, the summit set “only a first modest step towards Sustainable Development in the European Union”. John Hontelez, Secretary General said that although “it is positive that for the first time at a European Summit, environment and sustainable development was top of the agenda…the Commission gave the member states very little time for preparations. The Swedish Presidency was poor on ideas on what should be the outcome. As a result an important opportunity was lost to come with a courageous programme to green EU’s economy, to stop the subsidising, directly and indirectly, of pollution and destruction, to stop the discrimination of environmentally friendly behaviour and activities.”

Friends of the Earth was more strident in its criticism with its European Director Martin Rocholl saying that the summit conclusions on the sustainable development strategy were “full of good intentions but fail to deliver on targets and measures. Wherever the Commission sought concrete action, the heads of government either weakened or ignored the proposal”. “It is highly disturbing to see how slow progress is on sustainable development within the European Union while at the same time, the EU is pushing aggressively on a neo-liberal trade agenda which will increase negative worldwide environmental and social impacts,” added FOE’s UK Policy Director, Duncan McLaren.

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