EU and US environment policies: diverging or converging?

As two of the world’s largest economies, the EU and US have achieved some notable successes on environmental protection when working together, says the European Environment Commissioner. However, divergence in some environmental policy areas has been brought about by a variety of cultural differences.


In a speech to the European Institute in Washington DC, European Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström outlined the reasons behind the differences between European and US attitudes to environmental management.

“There is a common view out there that while the Americans are practical people, we Europeans are wordsmiths obsessed with process,” she said. “I think that this is unfair to Europeans.”

“In the US there seems to be a perception that the EU signs up easily to international agreements based on political intent and that we do not care so much about implementation,” said Wallström. This is not true, she stated; the EU only signs up to agreements if they are sure that they can meet the obligations. One reason that the region signs up to such agreements is that Europeans believe that the only effective way to address global environmental problems is through multilateral processes.

Public attitudes are also quite different between the two regions. One example is that of faith in technological advancement. “I believe Europeans are more sceptical that Americans about the possibility for technological advance through the market solving our natural problems,” said the Commissioner. “Likewise, there is great faith here [in the US] in the role of satellite technology in solving or preventing natural disasters.” Whilst there is a role for technology, Wallström stated that she believes that we can’t simply wait for the market to deliver new techniques to solve natural problems.

“We must recognise that while the EU and the US form an indispensable partnership, we are also competitors and we shall often disagree,” she said. “But our relationship is so broad and characterised by such a high degree of interdependence that we have a joint obligation to identify areas of common ground and to manage our disagreements in the least damaging fashion.” Wallström added that in an attempt to identify common ground, she had three days of discussions in Washington last week.

“To judge from some media reporting, it would appear that the EU and the US are moving in completely opposite directions when it comes to environmental policy,” said the Commissioner. However, when regions work together there can be successes, she continued, one example being the Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Ozone Layer.

Bilaterally, the EU and US have been co-operating for many years on air quality issues and on chemicals, said Wallström, and the two regions have worked well together on treaties such as the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

“But there are, of course, also areas of friction,” she said. Two areas, in particular, are the use of the precautionary principle and climate change.

“In many ways, the precautionary principle is simple the application of common sense,” said the Minister. “If you smell smoke, you don’t wait until your house is burning down before you tackle the cause.” In Europe, the precautionary principle is seen as a legitimate tool for decision-makers when faced with potentially harmful effects on the environment or health whose nature or extent are scientifically uncertain, she explained.

“But the precautionary principle is shrouded in misconceptions and misunderstandings,” said Wallström. “It is inaccurately linked to green protectionism.” It is far from being a way of evading international obligations from organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, she said. The Commissioner stated that the EU will continue to work with parties such as the US to improve understanding of the concept. “I strongly believe that the precautionary principle is a sound policy and is, above all, necessary to alleviate public concern.”

With regard to the Kyoto Protocol, the Commissioner expressed concern about the purely voluntary nature of US proposals for cutting greenhouse gases. She also questioned the usefulness of not having the first review of effectiveness of measures until 2012, seven years after the start of discussions on the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.

“One positive outcome of the EU-US summit in June of last year was the agreement to establish a mechanism for a dialogue on climate change,” said Wallström. Following this, the first meeting of the EU-US High-Level Representatives on Climate Change met last week. “While we agreed to disagree on the Kyoto Protocol, we nevertheless decided to collaborate further on research and monitoring with regards to climate change.”

“We can defeat climate change if we show the political will,” said Wallström “Kyoto remains the right path forward in our view. I sincerely hope that the US will one day soon return to the Kyoto table and engage constructively on this issue of primary importance.”

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