EU puts green agenda on hold

Matthew Farrow, EIC

It used to be the case that the European Commission was seen as a shining light for those who wanted tougher environmental regulation. But times are changing, and we have recently seen the new commission attract the dismay of the European environmental movement.

The provisional Commission Workplan for 2015 had included proposals for new legislation in two environmental areas – air quality and waste management/recycling. The ‘air quality package’ as it is known, contained plans to tighten EU air quality limits to take account of more recent scientific evidence of the health impacts of polluted air, while the ‘circular economy package’ would put in place 70% recycling targets to be met by 2030 along with new policies such as landfill bans for some materials. 

But when the new set of commissioners took up their posts in November 2014, there were strong rumours that President Juncker’s deputy, the grandly titled First Vice President of the European Commission, a Dutch politician called Frans Timmermans, was looking for regulatory proposals to ditch to demonstrate the pro-jobs, pro-growth credentials of the new commission.

There followed several weeks of intense lobbying, with traditional industrial bodies such as Business Europe encouraging the axing of the proposals and a coalition of green NGOs (and environmental business associations such as my own) warning such a move would be a grave mistake. 

"It’s clear that uncertainty over the direction of environmental policy is very high both at the EU level and here in the UK. That’s bad news for all of us."

On December 16th, Timmerman’s announced that the Circular Economy package would indeed be dropped from the 2015 Commission Workplan,.

Although to appease the green movement he added that it would be revised ‘to improve it’ and reintroduced in 2016, while the air quality proposals would be revived in  different format in the future. 

On January 15 this year the European Parliament debated the Workplan, but despite much unease among MEPs about the dropping of the two packages the two main political groups, the right of centre EPP and the left wing S&D could not agree on a joint resolution on the issue to put to a vote.

The result is that a large chunk of the EU green agenda is effectively ‘on hold’ for 2015 and it is unclear how quickly it will be restarted and whether future proposals on recycling and air quality will be watered down or not. Three things strike me about this episode.

First, it’s a reminder that while those of us working in the sustainability field are very focused on these sorts of EU policy issues, most politicians and voters across the EU are far more concerned about the basic economic situation, and with the Eurozone recently slipping back into recession even EU politicians steeped in the federalist agenda such as Juncker and Timmermans are looking for ways to be pro-business. Of course, there is a good deal of evidence that if implemented sensibly progressive environmental policies can support economic growth, but that argument has still not been won in mainstream political/media circles.

Second, it was noticeable how British ministers seemed to have nothing to say as the arguments raged about whether or not the packages should be ditched. I think this shows how toxic EU issues have become in UK politics, especially for Conservative Ministers.

Third, with the prospect of an EU referendum in 2017 casting doubt over whether any EU legislation will be relevant to the UK in a few years’ time, it’s worth remembering that there is nothing to stop UK policy makers and politicians putting new air quality and recycling targets and policies into British law anyway. I often think green NGOs are too quick to look to the EU to deliver policies for which they have not secured support among UK policy makers.

Overall, it’s clear that uncertainty over the direction of environmental policy is very high both at the EU level and here in the UK. That’s bad news both for firms in sectors such as waste management or air pollution control trying to set investment strategies and for all of us who care about the quality of the air we breathe and the amount of virgin resources society consumes.

Matthew Farrow is director general of the EIC, the leading trade body for environmental firms.