Monday

22nd Jan 2018

Opinion

2016: The year of sustainable development?

  • The European Commission is starting to understand that things don't get bigger than the protection of our environment, our life support system. (Photo: Elvin)

The European Commission on 27 October published its work programme for 2016. This document appears to show that the Juncker Commission’s thinking has evolved since it took up office a year ago and there is some suggestion that after one year in office, President Juncker and his Commission are starting to understand that things don’t get bigger than the protection of our environment, our life support system.

The Work Programme is very far from perfect, but there are glimmers of hope that the environment is no longer the Commission’s blindspot that it was a year ago.

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In particular, we welcome the promise of progress on the circular economy, a new political vision around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris climate deal, and the call to put energy efficiency first.

But this now needs to lead to a wholesale overhaul of Juncker’s 10 political priorities backed by strong policies and legally binding measures.

We need a new agenda for reform where the environment and the benefits it brings for people, the planet and prosperity are not playing second fiddle to the economy, as has been the case in the last 12 months.

If 2015 ends up being viewed with hindsight as the year of refugees and climate change, 2016 should be the year of sustainable development.

This call was made loud and clear during the European Environmental Bureau’s (EEB) annual conference last week, where participants underlined the importance of the Commission taking the Seventh Environmental Action Programme (7EAP) by the horns and coming out with concrete actions that turn fine words into reality.

“Living well, within the limits of the planet” is the ambitious title of the 7EAP, which the three main EU institutions signed up to in 2013, with the aim of making Europe “a smart, sustainable and inclusive...low-carbon and resource-efficient economy” by 2020.

The Programme highlights the continuing unsustainable trends in climate change, nature and biodiversity, environment, health and quality of life, and natural resources and wastes.

The Juncker Commission’s initial reaction to this challenge was to largely ignore it, being guided by a set of 10 priorities that, aside from climate change, barely mention the environment.

As time passes, it has become increasingly clear that those priorities, apart from belonging to another century and disrespecting the commitments of the 7EAP, are at odds with the EU’s call for an ambitious global climate deal in Paris and its espousal of the SDGs.

Oversimplification of overregulation

The claim that the Juncker priorities respond to a popular dislike of overregulation from ‘Brussels’ has been shown to be a gross oversimplification by the massive response to the Commission’s recent public consultation on the future of the EU’s nature protection laws.

More than half a million Europeans spoke out in defence of nature, making it the largest ever response to any public consultation by the Commission.

This shows clearly that Europeans not only care deeply about nature and biodiversity, an area completely absent from the Juncker priorities, but also that they value action at EU level.

This sentiment was backed up by a letter sent to the Commission on 27 October by nine environment ministers, including from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland.

Following the controversial withdrawal of the waste package earlier this year, we can hope that the keenly-awaited circular economy package, to be issued by the Commission in December, will be genuinely ‘more ambitious’ than the one it replaces, as has been promised.

But this alone will not solve our problems; only by putting sustainable development at the heart of EU policy will change be possible.

We need to follow a clear path that will allow everybody in Europe and elsewhere to live well within the limits of the planet. This implies stopping our massive over-consumption in Europe, which is at the expense of the climate and the development of the Global South.

Positive signs

It will also require a revitalising of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy and the Commission turning its full attention to seeing how legislation and policies, such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), that work in direct contradiction to living well within planetary boundaries can be made fit-for-purpose.

And it needs to refrain from jumping to examine, and even dismantle, regulations that industry deems as costly even if the societal and environmental benefits of them significantly outweigh any costs.

There are positive signs, however.

As EU Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella said at the EEB conference, “we cannot have a sustainable Europe without a sustainable environment.”

He insisted that the EU executive “understands this,” adding that “the 7EAP is not just something that we publish and put in a drawer. Thanks to [it] we know the direction we want to travel, and we know how far we must go”.

Today’s document suggests that President Juncker is starting to look for the right map and that his compass is moving in the right direction, even if there is much further to go.

As Commissioner Vella highlighted, EU environmental actions are “good for the environment, but they're also good for growth, jobs, health and general wellbeing”.

Let’s hope that this fact informs the future priorities and actions of the Commission.

Jeremy Wates is Secretary General of the European Environmental Bureau

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