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The EU and the Environment

 “Damage to the environment is constantly increasing and natural reserves are running out, jeopardising the basis of our existence and that of future generations” G8 Environment Ministers, April 2000

The Importance of the EU in Environmental Matters

The environment is without frontiers; only joint action can protect it. EU Member States have the great advantage that the EU provides a ready-made framework in which this can be achieved among the 25 Member States and between them and the rest of the world. The EU acts in two ways – legislating within the Union to deal with crossborder problems, taking account of costs as well as benefits, and by taking a lead internationally. This briefing note gives the background to EU environmental policy and attached to it is a checklist of European Union measures designed to protect the environment. The briefing shows how EU members can act to protect the global environment. The growing challenge of climate change is dealt with in a separate briefing note.

Integrated Environmental Policy & Sustainable Development

Article 6 of the European Community Treaty, states that environmental protection is to be integrated into the definition and implementation of all Community activities and policies. This need to integrate environmental concerns into other EU policies has been acknowledged since the Single European Act (1986 treaty on the Single Market).

The EU has environmental action programmes to make this objective a reality. It is currently implementing the sixth environmental action programme (6EAP), adopted in 2002 and running until 2012. Under the 6EAP, seven thematic strategies for improving the environment have been proposed by the European Commission, covering air, waste, use of natural resources, the marine environment, pesticides, soil and the urban environment.

Article 177 of the Treaty of Amsterdam put the concept of sustainable development at the heart of the EU’s co-operation programmes. This means that when working with third countries to improve their economic and social circumstances the EU requires that the governments of developing countries systematically take account of the environmental aspects of policies.

Environmental Liability

The EU supports the principle that the polluter pays for the consequences of his pollution. This approach was enshrined in the directive on environmental liability agreed in 2002. Under this proposal, environmental damage means damage caused to the aquatic environment covered by Community legislation on water management, species and habitats protected under Community legislation on nature conservation, areas protected under national or regional legislation on nature conservation, and health risks resulting from soil contamination.

Where environmental damage occurs, the relevant national agency or government will require the operator to take steps to deal with the problem. If the operator cannot do this, for example because they are no longer trading, the clear-up will take place anyway. It will be open to national governments to establish common funds, financial guarantees or other methods of ensuring that pollution is cleared up if the original polluter cannot pay.

This directive came into force on 30 April 2004.

Environmental Information

The European Union wishes to keep citizens informed about and involved in environmental matters and to improve the application of environmental legislation. The EU has signed the Convention on access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters (the Århus Convention of 1998).

Environmental Policies

The Annex attached lists some of the areas where the EU has legislated to protect the environment in areas where cross-border problems exist. The bathing waters of the Mediterranean, for example, cannot be separated by nation state. Pollution from one country can easily affect the beaches of another. Wild birds fly across national boundaries; waste like household rubbish and batteries can all too easily be collected in one country and illegally dumped in another. By tackling cross-border environmental problems at EU level there is more chance of the issue being effectively dealt with because the EU has both the resources and the enforcement mechanism.

Environmental action at EU level can also benefit the Single Market. The proper disposal of waste, for example, is a significant cost to industry and having a single set of standards for disposing of certain kinds of waste is fairer in competition terms. Thus, environmental policies can readily be seen as a case where the EU can operate effectively, and more effectively than can Member States on their own.

February 2009


Annex: Specific Environmental Policies

The Bathing Water Directive

Amongst the earliest measures of the EU were quality standards for drinking and bathing water. The 1976 Bathing Water Directive sought to raise the standards of bathing water by setting minimum standards for the quality of bathing water. This is done through microbiological standards, which set limits to the amount of faecal pollution allowed in bathing waters. Many of Britain’s 567 bathing areas were affected by the discharge of sewage into the sea in the past. The Bathing Water Directive led to a major national programme to stop sewage discharges in proximity to bathing areas. Over the last decade, the percentage of beaches in the UK meeting the EU standard for safe bathing water has risen from 82 per cent to 97.7 per cent. This directive also gives a degree of protection to the very large number of British tourists who swim off Mediterranean and other European beaches.

The Commission has recently begun enforcement procedures against a number of Member States who have been removing various beaches from their official list of bathing waters in order to evade their responsibilities under the Bathing Water Directive. The United Kingdom is being pursued because some of its urban water treatment works are inadequate for the volume of the sewerage generated and polluted waste water is, as a result, being discharged into seas and rivers. The Commission has particularly cited four places in the UK affected by the discharge of polluted water; they are Torbay, London, Whitburn and Kilbarchan.

The law on bathing water quality has recently been modernised, with a new directive agreed in February 2006. This tightens the bathing water quality rules and will repeal the existing directive at the end of 2014, giving Member States time to make the necessary changes to comply with the tougher standards.

Wildlife & Conservation

The countryside is constantly threatened by development projects – highways, railways, airfields, and industrial buildings. Powerful commercial interests are often involved and governments themselves may be the developers. To ensure that the procedures leading to authorisation are transparent and accountable, the EU insists on Environmental Impact Assessments, in which the full extent of environmental harm can be set out and measured against the economic benefits claimed for the project.

The Habitats Directive agreed in 1992 seeks to establish an EU-wide network of nature conservation sites (Natura 2000). There are two types of conservation area: the first, Special Areas of Conservation, are created by the Habitats Directive; and the second, Special Protection Areas, were created by the 1979 Directive on the protection of wild birds. The measure to protect wild birds was particularly controversial in some EU countries because of a tradition of hunting small birds. The aim of these protective zones is to create an environment in which the population of protected birds can thrive. The Directive restricts hunting, the sale of birds, the taking of eggs and so on so as to allow the species to recover. Over the last decade the bird population trends in these areas have been better than for birds elsewhere in the EU.

The UK has nominated 608 sites as potential Special Areas of Conservation and there are 246 Special Protection Areas with a further 13 awaiting designation.

The Landfill Directive

In 1999 the EU adopted a Directive on the disposal of waste by burying it in landfills. The purpose was to establish common standards for landfill sites covering, for example, their proximity to residential areas and to waterways. Under the terms of the directive, appropriate steps must be taken to prevent leaking of waste into soil and into water sources. Certain types of waste cannot any longer be disposed of in landfill, such as rubber tyres, hospital and clinical waste and liquid waste.

The Directive requires that all existing landfill sites meet the new standards, except those relating to location, by April 2009. Other parts of the Directive, particularly those relating to the disposal of hazardous waste in landfill sites, are already in force.

The Batteries Directive

The European Commission published a proposal in 2003 for a new directive on the disposal of batteries. It is anticipated that the directive will become law in the UK in 2008 with all the targets in it having to be met by 2012.

The purpose of the directive is to ensure that all automotive and industrial batteries collected are recycled in future, along with 90 per cent of collected consumer batteries. As the UK currently has a very poor record for battery recycling (less than 2 per cent of consumer batteries are separately collected) a considerable amount of work will have to be done to persuade the public to separate batteries for disposal in their waste and local authorities will need to make arrangements to collect them. A pilot project in Bristol, in which residents put batteries out with their household refuse in a specially marked bag, proved very successful.

Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)

The directive is intended to reduce the quantity of waste from electrical and electronic equipment and increase its re-use, recovery and recycling. The directive affects producers, distributors and recyclers of electrical and electronic equipment - including household appliances, IT and telecoms equipment, audio-visual equipment (TV, video, hi-fi), lighting, electrical and electronic tools, toys, leisure and sports equipment.

The main requirements of the directive are:

· that Member States set up systems to encourage separate collection of WEEE; and are to set up systems which will allow the return of WEEE free of charge to the final holder;

· that whilst there is no mandatory requirement for householders to separate all WEEE, Member States must encourage appropriate behaviour;

· that retailers are to ensure that WEEE is taken back on a one to one basis when a new, equivalent product is supplied; but Member States can provide that retailers make alternative arrangements instead, provided that they are free of charge to the final holder of the WEEE;

· that by 31 December 2006, Member States must achieve a collection rate of at least 4 kilograms on average per inhabitant per year of waste electrical and electronic equipment from private households;

· that Member States are to ensure that all WEEE collected from private households is transported to treatment facilities authorised under Article 6. Article 6 sets down standards which treatment facilities will have to meet;

· and that Member States are to ensure that systems are set up by producers to provide for recovery and re-use of separately collected WEEE according to set recovery, re-use and recycling targets. Targets are set as a proportion of collected WEEE from private households.

The Government brought forward the necessary UK legislation to implement the directive earlier this year following a further round of consultation on the details. The directive comes into force in August 2006.

The End-Life Vehicles Directive

Around two million cars are scrapped every year in the UK. The EU adopted a directive in 2000 designed to address the environmental consequences of this waste.

The main points of the directive are:

· that producers limit the use of hazardous substances and increase the quantity of recycled material used in the manufacture of their vehicles; and that producers design vehicles for easy recycling;

· that as of 2007, producers pay all or a significant part of the costs of free take-back of vehicles of no or negative value to a treatment facility;

· that producers meet certain recovery and recycling targets by 1 January 2006 and 1 January 2015; and

· that treatment facilities have permits if they want to deal with ELVs and should operate to higher environmental standards.

Producers will pay for "all or a significant part" of the costs of free take-back and treatment of all End-Life Vehicles from 1 January 2007. The directive gives flexibility to Member States in deciding how to fund take-back and treatment between 2002 and 2007. The Government announced on 21 June 2003 that, until 2007, the "last owner" of the vehicle would continue to have responsibility for its disposal.

The Drinking Water Directive

The EU first legislated in 1980 to set minimum standards for drinking water quality with the aim of ensuring that water is safe and pleasant to drink. Based on guidelines issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the initial Drinking Water Directive was replaced in 1998 with a new law which reflected a toughening of the WHO’s standards and a more co-ordinated approach to EU water legislation. The cost of complying with the directives has been significant because of the widespread presence of pesticides, lead and other poisonous substances in European drinking water but water quality has risen considerably over the last 20 years.

Fridges & Freezers

Up to three million domestic fridges and freezers and another half a million commercial units are disposed of annually in the UK. The EU agreed a regulation in 2000 that requires Member States to remove ozone-depleting substances (including CFCs and HCFCs) from refrigeration equipment before such appliances are scrapped. This requirement came into force immediately for industrial and commercial appliances and applied to domestic appliances from 1 January 2002. There has been a delay in sufficient treatment plants coming on stream in the UK that can carry out the necessary work but the backlog of collected fridges is now being tackled. The alleged “fridge mountain” crisis has not materialised to the extent predicted.

Chemicals – the ‘REACH’ Regulations

The EU reached political agreement in December 2005 on a new system of regulation for all chemicals. This will ensure that chemicals are properly evaluated before they are put on the market. The EU is trying to ensure that this regulatory system is constructed in a way that imposes the minimum regulatory burden on industry, for example by making it only necessary to register a chemical once. REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) will provide detailed information on about 30,000 different substances in the EU and will strengthen controls on those substances of most concern. The directive allows for certain substances to be exempted from this new system.

June 2006

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