Delivering the 7th Action Programme on the Environment

January 27, 2013

Since the advent of Ireland’s membership of the European Union(or Common Market as it was called in 1973), Ireland’s environmental legislation has largely been driven by the regulations and directives coming out of the negotiations in Brussels between the Member States. It started out with nine members, grew to eleven and subsequently fifteen and in now at twenty seven soon to be twenty eight members.

A complex yet balanced voting system has ensured a gradual move towards a unified code of environmental legislation which is now increasingly impacting upon the wider international community. This is so as entry into the internal market of the Union is predicated by external countries having to comply with the environmental priorities of a unified Europe in order to enter what is one of the world’s largest economies.

The continuance of a regulatory framework to underpin a sustainable Europe is now a feature of European policy development. As a horizontal policy EU Environmental Policy impacts virtually every aspect of day to day living.

As such Member States can find themselves regularly in dispute with the European regulatory framework and for some, it provides further ammunition in their political disputes with an ever closer Union. Nonetheless as recent non Member Governments have acknowledged, it is better to be integrated into the environmental policy framework than outside it as the capacity to influence is much greater, notwithstanding scale and level of economic development.

Put simply a country like Ireland, because of its central role within the Union has a greater influence on many of the decisions impacting global environmental policies than many bigger non member countries.
As a result, the Irish Presidency has, as a priority, development of a 7th Action Programme which will continue the development of an advanced legal framework for the environment within the European Union.

The Commission envisages a programme which will address the on-going instability in international economic conditions and the increasingly interlinked nature of environmental, economic and social challenges. It has highlighted a series of broad challenges which include:
– Increased growth in the demand for natural resources and the impacts this has for the environment;
– Enlargement of the EU and a more diversified spectrum of national characteristics and circumstances.
– The results of the European Environment Agency’s State of the Environment Report 2010 that the EU is not on track for the following: pressure on ecosystems, biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine), waste generation and air quality in urban areas.

The Commission has highlighted the mixed progress on energy efficiency, the conservation status of the EU’s most important habitats and species, decoupling (resource use and economic growth), water stress, water quality and trans boundary air pollution; and that the EU is on track on greenhouse gas emissions, recycling, water pollution from point sources and on bathing water quality.

There remains the concern that across the Member States implementation of environmental legislation is mixed with limited long-term perspective on environmental legislation. So, notwithstanding the progress of the last forty years there remains a need for an over arching policy framework which will allow the Union to build on such progress and to position it to lead world developments in sustainable development. This is no short challenge but rather is critical if Europe is to move out of the economic doldrums which has impacted it so negatively over the recent past.

In broad terms the new programme will address:
– Changing the behaviour of consumers to ease pressures on the environment notably in those sectors which impose most of the EU’s ecological footprint.
– Exploring the role of urban communities and urban policy to deliver environmental improvements;
– Ensuring an improved policy coherence through better integration;
– Developing a more extensive knowledge base and better indicators to measure progress,
– The environmental determinants for improving public health;
– A renewed emphasis on the international aspect of environmental policy, setting the basis for a global green growth while continuing to strive for better global environmental governance;
– Financing environmental policy objectives based on an appropriate mix of public and private means given the pressures on public budgets.

The Irish Presidency is seeking to advance the development of the policy and hopes to conclude an agreement with the European Parliament during the Presidency. If this is successful, an admittedly challenging order, the Programme should be adopted to run the course of European 2020 the Union’s strategy for sustainable development. As such this will when implemented, impact on the daily lives of all citizens in the Union and across the globe. Ireland has played a close role in earlier versions of the environmental programmes, perhaps most notably the 5th Action Programme of which the consequences remain to be felt in areas such as protection of waters, environmental impact assessment and integrated pollution control. Long after Ireland’s current presidency the consequences for Europe’s environment will be felt as a result of the actions of the next six months.