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16.5.  Appraisal and outlook of EU's environmental policy

    Thanks to the Treaty of Maastricht environment protection has graduated to the status of a common policy and falls into the priority objectives of the Union. Environmental constraints must be integrated into the definition and implementation of other common policies. The uniform application in all Member States of environmental standards is, in fact, indispensable not only for the preservation of Europe's environment, but also for the good functioning of the internal market and for economic and social cohesion [see section 12.1.2].

    It is very difficult to evaluate the specific results of the European measures in this area, first because the quality of the environment is a highly subjective notion and therefore difficult to define, and secondly because the policy to combat pollution is a Sisyphean task. The quality objectives that it lays down are incessantly thrust aside by economic development and urbanisation. It is true that the annual reports of the Commission to the Parliament and the Council on the implementation of the European Union's environment programme show that significant progress has been achieved on phasing out ozone-depleting substances, reducing emissions of certain pollutants into the atmosphere and surface waters, improving water quality and reducing acidification. But, the state of the environment overall remains a cause for concern, particularly in respect to growing consumption of natural resources, chemical risks, soil degradation, global warming and biodiversity losses.

    Moreover, serious problems and excessive delays in the enforcement and implementation of the environment directives exist in many Member States, which also have a bad record on producing the necessary reports and information in general. In any case, a permanent vigilance is required of citizens, who can lodge complaints with the Commission whenever they observe that European standards are not being complied with by an undertaking or by public or private works in their country or a neighbouring country. Likewise, mechanisms are needed for handling complaints and carrying out environmental investigations outside the courts [see section 9.3].

    However, the European Union cannot work in isolation in this field. Even if it were to succeed in significantly reducing and preventing pollution in its territory, it would still be open to water and air pollution from the other countries of Europe and the other regions of the world. For that reason the Union must play a leading role in international negotiations and take more visible action in the framework of international organisations such as the Council of Europe and the United Nations. Thus, the accession to the Union of Central and Eastern European countries must go hand-in-hand with increased consideration of environmental constraints, which have been tragically neglected in the past. The European Environment Agency, which is open to the other countries of Europe, plays an important part in this area.

    The environmental interdependence of all the countries in the world is particularly marked with regard to the greenhouse effect and its climatic consequences for the globe. The EU is set to achieve and even overachieve its Kyoto target. By 2010, total EU-27 GHG emissions are projected to be about 10.7% below base-year levels. The projected decline is 13.2% when the effect of the Kyoto mechanisms and carbon sinks are accounted for and it could reach 16.7% if the additional domestic policies and measures currently under discussion were to be implemented on time and would deliver as estimated. Yet, the EU's climate policy does not stop in 2012. Many of the EU policies that are already in place will have an important impact beyond the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period. The Sixth Environment Action Programme (2002-2012) [see section 16.2] envisages that further reductions are required to achieve the Kyoto objectives and therefore, more concrete policies and measures are necessary. In spring 2007, the European Council endorsed the EU's independent commitment to reduce GHG emissions by at least 20% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels even if no international agreement is reached. The EU would be prepared to increase this reduction to 30%, provided that such an agreement would indeed materialize.

    However, the European Union cannot curb the greenhouse phenomenon alone. At the international level, the Union should aim at promoting sustainable development and the effective participation of all players, ensuring greater consistency, better implementation of environmental standards and greater integration of environmental concerns into states' internal policies. It should summon other industrialised countries and, particularly, the United States, as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, to comply with standards agreed in international fora. It should also take the initiative to call for international environmental governance, based on coherent international, regional, sub-regional and national institutional environmental architecture topped by a World Environment Organisation, capable of responding to current challenges.

    In a European economy that undergoes structural change, the challenge facing those with responsibility for environment policy is to develop instruments which will make it possible painlessly to achieve the objective of growth which is compatible with the essential requirements of the environment. Strong economic performance must go hand in hand with sustainable use of natural resources and levels of waste, maintaining biodiversity, preserving ecosystems and avoiding desertification. This involves foreseeing the ecological problems of technological development and limiting them from the outset, for example by encouraging the selection of new chemical products before they are launched on the market and the systematic evaluation of the likely impact on the environment of any new economic activity. Yet, there is no major conflict between economic growth and a healthy and clean environment. The inflationary effect of environment policies is negligible. On the other hand, the "environment industry" is probably in a position to help the European economies to restructure themselves on new bases by directing them towards new activities that employ advanced technology and a skilled workforce. Environmental technologies (new and innovative, environment friendly technologies) have the potential to contribute to growth and competitiveness, by reducing the costs of environmental protection, while at the same time improving the environment and protecting natural resources. However, a series of market and institutional obstacles obstruct the use of these technologies. Energy market prices, in particular, lead to systematic under-investment in innovative technologies. These obstacles could be overcome by internalising environmental costs to provide incentives for further research in this field.

    Promoting a sustainable economic growth in Europe entails the combination of more competitive industrial production with less environmental degradation, more efficient use of energy and raw materials resources and higher employment rates. Indeed, there can be a synergy between environmental policy and employment policy so as to rectify the overuse of environmental resources and the underuse of human resources [see section 13.3.2]. However, this synergy is not automatic, but has to be induced by certain measures, first and foremost being the restructuring of tax systems by reducing non-wage labour costs and by incorporating environmental and resource costs into the market prices of goods and services.  The EU may encourage the best available technologies and research and development and provide, within the framework of the guidelines on State aid, flexibility at national level to ensure the effectiveness of policies and measures to tackle climate change. Common action is needed to progressively reduce or remove fossil fuel and other subsidies, tax schemes and regulations which militate against efficient use of energy. In addition, environmental education and training coupled with financial incentives should encourage public authorities, private and public companies and consumers to move towards cleaner, more environment friendly and more labour intensive production methods and products.

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