Environment policy: A major EU achievement

Written by Karl-Heinz Lambertz on 15 May 2019 in Opinion
Opinion

Environmental policy is one of the EU’s major achievements, but we can’t stop now; change can and should happen more locally, says Karl-Heinz Lambertz.

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With citizens demanding more climate action - an issue that will sway many voters in the forthcoming European elections - improving the impact of environmental law will show the real added value of the European Union.

The EU has come a long way since the first Environmental Action Programme was launched in 1973 as a way of containing environmental damage, conserving biodiversity and protecting our natural resources.

Yet it is estimated that non-delivery on this programme costs the EU €55bn each year, meaning there is a pressing need to bridge the gap in implementation between EU regulation and reality.

It is clear that to achieve this, sufficient funding is needed, as well as a new way of working that empowers the regions and cities that are delivering to be far more involved in policymaking.

Environmental policy is one of the EU’s major achievements; Europe is home to the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world.


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It has sought to protect endangered species and habitats, restore ecosystems and create more sustainable agriculture, fisheries and forestry.

At a global level, the EU has surpassed its 2020 CO2 emissions reduction targets with a projected 24.5 percent decrease since 1990.

Nevertheless, air pollution still claims 400,000 lives each year. A third of the EU landmass suffers from water stress, while water scarcity is a concern in many member states. We need to do more.

Environmental law is one area where many local and regional authorities have competency. For air quality, cities in Europe are developing innovative solutions for tackling pollution, be it through banning diesel cars in Paris or introducing low-emission zones in Brussels.

However, air quality will not improve unless measures led by the ‘polluter pays’ principle are taken to cut emissions from heavy industries and highly-polluting production sites.

On water reuse, cities and regions are calling for new EU regulations that extend to green urban areas and greater legal certainty for operators and end-users.

“It can be made more effective through cooperation, bridging the knowledge gap and engaging local and regional governments in EU environmental policy”

The European Commission needs to broaden the future scope of its proposed regulation from agriculture irrigation to urban green spaces.

It is often local and regional authorities - in partnership with key stakeholders - that successfully manage Natura 2000, the EU’s network of protected areas.

This is fundamental to protecting biodiversity. The Commission recognises their role, and our Committee is co-responsible for four of the 15 actions of the “Action plan for nature, people and the economy” for improving the nature directives.

We are helping local and regional actors improve delivery of these directives while ensuring their views are considered.

It can be made more effective through cooperation, bridging the knowledge gap and engaging local and regional governments in EU environmental policy.

Policy governance led by subsidiarity is finally making headway, so it is more inclusive. We need to reinforce cooperation through, for example, the Technical Platform for Cooperation on the Environment.

This ensures dialogue between the European Commission and our Committee’s members on implementing environmental legislation.

To promote implementation, our Assembly is pushing for a network of Platform ambassadors to complement the Environmental Implementation Review and the TAIEX-EIR peer-to-peer tool.

Local and regional authorities will never be able to provide effective environmental protection without investment.

“We need to coordinate our local, regional, national and EU budgets so that all regions – including cities – can access other financing streams”

Our Committee rejects cuts to cohesion policy in the EU budget post-2020. This will undermine both the EU’s objective of territorial cohesion and e orts by local and regional authorities to improve our transport systems, build energy-efficient homes and green our economy.

We need a budget to match our ambitions, which is why, - together with the European Parliament - we are calling for an increase from 1.1 percent to 1.3 percent of the EU27 GNI.

We need to coordinate our local, regional, national and EU budgets so that all regions - including cities - can access other financing streams, such as the European Fund for Strategic Investment.

If the EU wants to continue showing global leadership on climate and environmental protection, it needs to change how it works by taking an inclusive and active approach to decision-making.

We need to give regions and cities a stronger say, backed by sufficient investment, in the planning, implementation and evaluation of EU environmental policy if we want to achieve better results and demonstrate the real value of the EU.

About the author

Karl-Heinz Lambertz is President of the European Committee of the Regions

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