EC’s new 10-year environment programme short on targets

The European Commission’s sixth environment strategy displays an absence of clear targets and timetables in most policy fields and dilute its chemicals policy.

Environment 2010: Our Future, Our Choice, the EC’s sixth 10-year vision for European environmental policy, published on 24 January, has been criticised by environmental groups for lacking precise timetables and targets and has removed some commitments to controls on toxic chemicals. Meanwhile, the environment minister of the nation now holding the EU presidency, Sweden, affirmed that stricter controls of toxics would be central to his plan during the tenure.

The plan, which must now be debated by EU governments and the European Parliament, could be adopted as early as June if Sweden has its way. It sets out a number of long-term objectives divided into four policy areas: climate change, nature and bio-diversity, sustainable use of natural resources, waste and the environment, and health, and the means to achieve them. Environmental groups have attacked its lack of targets and timetables to achieve objectives, exactly the same criticism levelled at its predecessor by the EC itself last year (see related story).

One area of policy which has been changed, and effectively diluted, are past proposals to phase out substances with carcinogenic or mutagenic effect, those toxic to reproduction and those which are “persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic”. The plan also now makes no reference to objectives to reduce pesticide usage or to complete risk assessments on the estimated 30,000 on the market by 2020. “Industry are lobbying very hard against a new chemicals policy,” commented Margot Wallström presenting the new programme.

On the same day, Swedish Environment Minister Kjell Larsson told the European Parliament that one of the major plans during his country’s current presidency of the EU would be to make chemicals policy one of the priorities in environmental policy over the next six months. He would also attempt to ban substances that accumulate in the body, he said. His words come just after the EC produced a list of 32 toxic chemicals that it wants to phase out in the next 20 years (see related story).

Releasing the new plan, the EC stressed the need for Member States to better implement existing environmental laws (see, for example, this weeks’s story on several EU nations being taken to court), citing this as a possible reason for the failure of the previous plan. Another theme in the new programme is working with business and consumers to achieve more environmentally-friendly forms of production and consumption. Here, the Commission wants to have recourse to a raft of new instruments ranging from an Integrated Product Policy and environmental liability to fiscal measures and better information for citizens.

On climate change, the plan focuses on the achievement of the Community’s 8% emission reduction target for 2008-2012 under the Kyoto Protocol, but also calls for global emission cuts in the order of 20-40% by 2020, and cites the scientific estimate that in the longer term a 70% global greenhouse gas emission reduction as compared to 1990 will be needed. The programme calls for stronger efforts in energy-efficiency and energy-saving, the establishment of an EU-wide emissions trading scheme (see related story), further research and technological development and awareness-raising with citizens so that they can contribute to reducing emissions.

On nature and bio-diversity, the programme sees the full establishment of the Natura 2000 network (see related story) as a major cornerstone of EC policy. It also says that more attention needs to be given to protecting landscapes more generally through agricultural and regional policies.

The programme also announces new initiatives for protecting the marine environment and proposals to prevent industrial and mining accidents. A thematic strategy for protecting soils will open a new field of Community environmental policy.

On the environment and health, the programme pledges “a thematic strategy for reducing risks from pesticides” and restates the importance of 2000’s Water Framework Directive (see related story) and the future Noise Framework Directive (see related story).

On the sustainable use of natural resources and waste, the EC recognises that “one of the most difficult issues for the EU’s environmental policy is the inexorable growth in waste” and calls for a decoupling of waste generation from economic growth. Particular efforts will be devoted to increased recycling, and waste prevention objectives are to be pursued through an Integrated Product Policy. Other proposals target specific waste streams such as sludges and biodegradeable waste, the report says.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a federation of NGOs, apart from criticising “the absence of clear targets and timetables in most policy fields”, said that the programme relies too heavily on the voluntary co-operation of business. It criticised the replacement of targets to reduce air-pollution to the “critical loads ecosystems can absorb without damage” and to “safe exposure levels for human beings”, set in the previous programme, with “the vague objective” of “levels that do not give rise to unacceptable impacts on, and risks to, human health and the environment”. The EEB also said it finds too little recognition of the likelihood that in the next 10 years a large number of Central and Eastern European countries will join.

Tony Long of the WWF’s European policy office said the programme “identifies most of the problems but fails in most cases to come up with concrete solutions”.

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