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The 7th Environmental Action Programme to set the sustainability agenda

Submitted by on 09 Mar 2012 – 11:51

By Jo Leinen, Member of the European Parliament

Over the last 40 years, the Environmental Action Programmes have provided guidelines for the policy-making in the EU. The European Commission proposed six Environmental Action Programmes since the early 1970s to set out priorities for environment protection for forthcoming years and to provide the basis for legislative proposals. The necessary measures to implement the objectives of these programmes are taken afterwards.

After the first five Action Programmes which were mainly political statements of intent, the 6th Environmental Action Programme (2002-2012) was adopted jointly by the European Parliament and the Council and provided concrete objectives for environmental policy-making in the four main areas: climate change, nature and biodiversity, environment and health as well as natural resources and waste. These main objectives were transposed in seven “Thematic Strategies” on: marine environment, pesticides, soil protection, air pollution, urban environment, natural resources and waste.

On balance, the 6th Environmental Action Programme has provided an overarching framework for environment policy, during which time environmental legislation has been consolidated and substantially completed. On the one hand progress has been made especially in the areas of climate change and waste policy. The climate and energy package proves that climate protection moved high on the European agenda and it even contains legislation which goes far beyond the initial measures set out in the 6th EAP. On the other hand objectives in the areas air pollution, urban environment and natural resources have been missed and additional implementation effort is needed to reach the goals for pesticides and water. The weaknesses of the 6th Environmental Action Programme are related to a lack of implementation of the environmental acquis by Member States and other shortcomings which need to be addressed in the future.

In general, the 6th Environmental Action Programme was helpful to amplify environment and climate protection in the EU. The fact that we’re overexploiting our planet’s resources has become common knowledge. Thus the need for a drastic change in our production and consumption patterns has emerged, as continuing with business as usual is not an option anymore. Therefore the EU is moving towards a sustainable, resource efficient and low carbon economy. This ambitious transition demands the commitment of all stakeholders.

In this context, the 7th Environmental Action Programme can play a crucial role as it will address the environmental challenges lying ahead while setting out priorities for 2020 and a clear vision for a better environment for a better life by 2050. For the coming decade, it will be crucial to address the environmental issues with a more coherent and integrated approach that takes into account the links between them.

In the currently drafted report on “the review of the 6th Environmental Action Programme and the setting of priorities for the 7th Environmental Action Programme”, the European Parliament highlights that the focus shall be on three “I’s”: implementation and strengthening, integration and international dimensions. In the first place, poorly implemented environmental legislation leads to a degradation of the state of the environment in the EU and sometimes agreed targets – such as halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010 – are missed.

It’s the Member States obligation to implement and transpose EU legislation properly to achieve the goals they passed themselves. With regard to 2020 the 7th Environmental Action Programme will not create too many targets as the timeframe is too short, but it should rather enforce existing legislation where necessary and integrate emerging policy areas (e.g. adaptation to climate change) to deal with both persistent and emerging environmental challenges. The main policy areas for implementation are similar to the ones of the 6th Environmental Action Programme: climate change, efficient and sustainable use of resources, environment and health as well as biodiversity. Secondly, the integration of environmental considerations into other relevant sectoral policies – in particular agriculture, fisheries, cohesion policy, transport, industry, energy, trade, employment and research – should be a key priority of the 7th Environmental Action Programme. Therefore existing goals and targets should be examined in conjunction with each other, so as to allow for an appropriate comparison and to ensure that objectives are coherent. Thirdly, the international dimension is gaining importance in the European policy-making. On the one side, the EU will promote its priorities in environmental protection abroad and thus the 7th Environmental Action Programme should have as a goal to integrate environmental considerations into all EU external relations, in particular into development aid and trade agreements. On the other side, the EU’s ecological footprint inside and outside its borders needs to be reduced, hence additional efforts for resource efficiency and resource savings are necessary even in third countries.

These three “I’s” will set the EU’s sustainability agenda for 2020 as we are still far from a satisfying situation regarding the state of the environment and the need to decrease the pressure on the planet’s capacity to sustain demands for resources or ecosystem services. The 7th Environmental Action Programme will reinforce the protection of our environment to increase the quality of life on earth notably by safeguarding ecosystems and their services, halting the loss of biodiversity, ensuring better air quality, less noise, as well as by creating jobs and growth, and by ensuring well-being for current and future generations.