If you were going to publish a blueprint for environmental policy in the European Union covering the next seven years, the middle of the Christmas–New Year holiday period might not be seen as the ideal time, as Paul Clarke reports.

The European Commission works to its own rules, and Decision 1386/2013/EU accordingly appeared in the Official Journal on 28 December 2013. This sets out the details of the EU's seventh Environment Action Programme (EAP) under the title Living Well, within the limits of our planet. If you missed the rather quiet launch of this vital document, this article sets out the main details of a piece of legislation that will guide EU policy on the environment until 2020.

Magnificent seven

EAPs have guided the development of EU environment policy since 1973, resulting, in the Commission's words, in "a broad range of environment legislation being put in place, amounting to the most comprehensive modern standards in the world". An assessment of the sixth programme in the sequence, covering the period 2002–12, concluded that it, too, had delivered benefits for the environment. However, it had left unsustainable trends in four particular areas to be dealt with by its successor: climate change; nature and biodiversity; environment and health and quality of life; and natural resources and wastes.

The new EAP

Underlying the new programme will be the well-tested EU tools: the precautionary principle; the principles of preventive action and of rectification of pollution at source; and the polluter-pays principle. It has been adopted within existing plans whereby the Union has agreed to:

  • achieve a reduction of at least 20% of its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2020

  • ensure that 20% of energy consumption comes from renewable energy by 2020

  • achieve a 20% cut in primary energy use compared with projected levels, by improving energy efficiency.

Thematic priorities

To achieve the stated aims, the EAP has a number of priority objectives, mainly to:

  • protect nature and strengthen ecological resilience

  • boost sustainable, resource-efficient, low-carbon growth

  • effectively address environment-related threats to health

  • maximise the benefits of EU environment legislation by improving implementation

  • improve the knowledge and evidence base for Union environment policy

  • secure investment for environment and climate policy

  • improve environmental integration and policy coherence

  • enhance the sustainability of the Union’s cities

  • increase the Union’s effectiveness in addressing international environmental and climate-related challenges.

Natural capital

Looking at the first priority, recent assessments show that biodiversity in the EU is still being lost and that most ecosystems are seriously degraded. Despite the requirement in the Water Framework Directive to protect, enhance and restore all bodies of surface and ground water, and considerable efforts to date, the objective of “good ecological status” by 2015 is likely to be met for only 53% of surface water bodies in the Member States. To tackle some of these problems, the Commission highlights the need for better integration of natural capital objectives in the development and implementation of other policies, particularly including agriculture and fisheries. It notes that environmental objectives, such as biodiversity conservation and the protection of soil and water, should be fully taken into account in decisions relating to renewable energy.

Low-carbon economy

With regard to the second priority, the EAP stresses that innovation to improve resource efficiency is required throughout the economy, to improve competitiveness in the context of rising resource prices, scarcity, raw material supply constraints, and dependency on imports. Since 80% of all environmental impacts of a product during its lifecycle originate in its design phase, the Union policy framework will, in the future, ensure that priority products placed on the market are "eco-designed", with a view to optimising resource and material efficiency. To set a framework for action to improve resource efficiency aspects beyond GHG emissions and energy, targets for reducing the overall lifecycle environmental impact of consumption will be set, in particular in the food, housing and mobility sectors.

Environment and health

Water and air pollution, and chemicals, remain among the general public’s top environmental concerns, and the EAP's third-priority objective recognises that urban air pollution is set to become the primary environmental cause of mortality worldwide by 2050. Failure to fully implement existing policy is preventing the EU from achieving adequate air and water quality standards, and addressing this problem will form an important part of the EAP’s early realisation. The Commission is also anxious to see problems, such as excessive noise, tackled under this objective.

Investing in the future

The efforts required to achieve the objectives set out in the EAP will need adequate investment from public and private sources. To that end, the private sector, in particular small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), will be encouraged to step up its involvement in efforts to achieve environment and climate objectives, especially in relation to eco-innovation activities and the uptake of new technologies. Public-private initiatives for eco-innovation will be promoted under European Innovation Partnerships, such as the Innovation Partnership on Water. As a major source of funding, the LIFE programme will allow funds to be combined and better aligned with policy priorities in a more strategic, cost-effective way, in support of environment and climate-related measures, through the deployment of a range of projects. The EU will continue to promote “environmentally responsible business practices”.

Sustainable cities

Most cities face a common set of core environmental problems, including air quality concerns, high levels of noise, traffic congestion, GHG emissions, biodiversity loss and degradation, water scarcity, floods and storms, diminishing green areas, contaminated sites, brownfields, and inappropriate waste and energy management. Under the EAP, the EU will promote and, where appropriate, expand existing initiatives that support innovation and best practice in cities, networking and exchanges, and encourage them to showcase their leadership with regard to sustainable urban development. By 2020, it is intended that a majority of cities in the Member States will be implementing policies for sustainable urban planning and design, including innovative approaches for urban public transport and mobility, sustainable buildings, energy efficiency, and urban biodiversity conservation.

Climate-related challenges

The time span covered by the new EAP corresponds to key phases in international climate, biodiversity and chemical policy. The Commission recognises that, in the light of a growing population and in an increasingly urbanised world, international action must be taken in a number of areas, such as water, oceans, sustainable land and ecosystems, resource efficiency (in particular, waste), sound management of chemicals, sustainable energy, and climate change. Many of the priority objectives set out in the seventh EAP can only be fully achieved as part of a global approach and in co-operation with partner countries. Accordingly, the EU and its Member States will “engage in relevant international, regional and bilateral processes in a strong, focused, united and coherent manner”.

Summary

The latest EAP runs until 2020 and foresees the adoption of new targets for climate and energy, resource use and a wide range of new measures to make products more efficient, longer-lasting and easier to repair and recycle; to reduce waste production; to protect citizens more effectively from hazardous chemicals including nanomaterials; to restore Europe’s biodiversity; and to protect oceans from marine litter.

Last reviewed 28 January 2014