Why the EU’s green grades are not as high as they should be

The European Commission’s proposed ban on single-use plastics, announced on May 28, is an archetypal European environmental initiative: it is a bold measure to improve our planet, and it responds to rising public concerns about an alarming pollution problem. It comes a fortnight after the Commission’s third Mobility Package, setting targets for heavy-duty vehicle emissions, and just days after two big political environmental events: the annual EU Green Week, and the Clean Energy Ministerial in Copenhagen and Malmö.

But despite the big recent displays of environmental credentials, there are many areas where the EU is simply not doing enough. From air quality to pesticides to carbon emissions to chemicals, there have been delays, weaker targets, and pushbacks from national governments. Indeed, with just one year left for Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission mandate, the record actually looks very mixed.

Let’s look at it in more detail.

The most pressing issue is climate change. The EU can claim credit for husbanding the United Nations deal to limit global average temperature to 2° at the December 2015 Paris Climate Conference. Of course, the decision a year ago by US President Donald Trump to withdraw from the treaty is a setback, but the EU – and other major signatories – have stuck by the deal and are working to speed up investments in clean energy and transport. Its flagship policy, the Emissions Trading System, is one of the best performing commodities, rising from €6 to €16 in just six months.

France, UK, the Netherlands and Finland have already set dates for quitting coal-fired power generation. Others are expected to follow. Some governments, like Germany and Poland, are planning for closures.

In stark contrast, transport is an area where EU emissions have continued to grow unchecked. The Commission was accused of going soft in pushing European carmakers to clean up. In May, the Commission unveiled new measures to help boost the uptake of electric vehicles (EVs). But with global EV sales at just one million units, and European carmakers only now starting to invest in the technology, the market will need to shift dramatically to effect emissions.

The Commission is planning to launch its 2050 climate strategy by November, which will outline how it plans to meet the Paris Agreement’s objectives. EU Energy and Climate Action Commissioner Miguel Arias Cañete says it will set pathways to net zero emissions by 2050 with the aid of falling renewable prices and improved storage technology. But while the EU remains fully committed to reducing its domestic emissions by at least 40% between 1990 and 2030, many governments want bigger cuts. This comes off various civil society fillings: in the Netherlands, for example, the courts forced the government to both raise its domestic reduction target and demand a higher target from the EU. Many businesses are also seeking higher renewable energy and energy savings targets to help meet the climate objectives while stimulating domestic clean growth.

Carbon emissions are not the only kind of air pollution. This month, the Commission sent six EU members to the European Court of Justice for failing to clean up dirty air and exceeding EU limits for nitrogen dioxide, largely caused by diesel engines. The infringement proceedings won the praise of the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO), but the very fact that the Commission had to take such action shows that existing air quality rules are not being met. There are at least a further dozen member states in a similar position. This has been driven, to a large extent, by cities and citizens banding together to ban diesel vehicles and tackle harmful air pollution.

There has been a success with the Commission’s circular economy strategy, underlining the four Rs of Remanufacturing, Repair, Re-use, and Recycling. The December 2015 package included six bills on waste, packaging, landfill, end of life vehicles, batteries and accumulators, and waste electronic equipment. And the proposal on single-use plastics is part of this drive, outlawing many everyday plastic items like straws, cotton buds, knives and forks, and balloon sticks, which have been particularly pernicious when ending up as waste in oceans and seas.

However, even the circular economy measures have had mixed results. The 2015 package replaced a 2014 proposal by the previous Commission administration under José Manuel Barroso, which had set a 2030 municipal waste recycling target of 70%. The 2015 replacement package cut the target to 65%, while national governments lowered it further, to 60%.

Other criticisms are levelled at the Commission for its failure to revise the EU’s most important nature laws, the EU Birds and Habitats Directives, which call on governments to set up and manage sites to protect vulnerable and rare animals, birds, plants, habitats and other species. The Commission launched a ‘fitness check’ of the two laws in 2014 to give them a much-needed update. The update could have adapted the laws to help jobs and growth while maintaining the strong protections. But after a record 550,000 people took part in the public consultation – 95% calling for the laws to be kept as they were – the revision was effectively sunk. The episode revealed how the Commission can blink in the face of what might be called a populist revolt.

On pesticides, progress is also mixed. Neonicotinoids, pesticides linked to insect decline, are now banned. But the controversial weedkiller glyphosate, was given only a five year extension instead of the standard ten, despite many scientific studies indicating it is safe for its intended use.

The EU can point to successes in local and small-scale initiatives. For example, as part of Green Week, the Globe EU group of MEPs hosted an event called ‘Re-using the Rubble’, looking at creative ways that public authorities and economic actors are boosting circular practices in the construction sector.

And there are hopes that sustainable finance can improve on the back of the Commission’s March action plan aiming to define green investment by creating EU labels for green financial products.

But the bigger schemes are slipping. A European Parliament study published last November on the EU’s seven-year 7th Environment Action Programme found that despite sporadic progress in some areas, its objectives, “are unlikely to be fully met by 2020”.

There are also broader doubts about whether enough money is available. The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), Europe’s largest network of NGOs, has warned that the Commission’s 2021-27 budget proposal does not go far enough to bring down carbon emissions, reverse biodiversity loss or mainstream sustainability.

That adds up to a mixed overall environmental record for the Juncker Commission, which has left both NGO campaigners and businesses equally frustrated by the lack of progress.

This is a shame, because environmental policy is an area where EU action generates particular appreciation from citizens: a Eurobarometer poll in January revealed that Europeans remain very concerned about the environment. And while they are taking individual actions – like separating waste for recycling and saving energy – they expect the EU and national governments to do more.

With one year left on the current mandate, people are already looking to the next Commission. It is a crucial time for anyone concerned about how to influence EU environmental policy. As the past few years have shown, the Commission does not always score well with its environmental plans. But there is a chance for the next Commission to get higher green grades.

Authors: Leo Cendrowicz,  Selma Abdel-Qader, Roland Moore, Sanjeev Kumar


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