Potočnik: More legislative power, but no money for environment

  

Compared to other policy areas, environment still remains the Cinderella of the European budget, where allocations amount to just over €2 billion compared to research which gets more than €50 billion for the FP7. Negotiations on the next EU budget 2014-2020 will be crucial, said Commissioner Janez Potočnik in an interview with EurActiv Slovakia

Before becoming Commissioner for the environment, you were responsible for science and research. Has your previous experience influenced your current portfolio?

Of course, work in the area of research was different than the environment. But there are lots of things which one can use from the experience of previous portfolio. At that time people were not just expecting me to know and understand science policy, I was expected to know the major scientific developments in many areas, including the environment.

Before becoming Commissioner for the environment, you were responsible for science and research. Has your previous experience influenced your current portfolio?

Of course, work in the area of research was different than the environment. But there are lots of things which one can use from the experience of previous portfolio. At that time people were not just expecting me to know and understand science policy, I was expected to know the major scientific developments in many areas, including the environment.

One of the major things that we were trying to achieve at that time was for the proper amount of time and attention to be given to environmental issues. In the Commission's latest proposal on Horizon 2020, we are proposing a legally binding text that at least 60% of the future programme for research and innovation would need to be devoted to environmental and climate issues.

But if you want to explain the difference in one sentence then I can put it very simply: science was a portfolio with a lot of money, which was not easy to manage without a lot of political and legislative power, while here you have a huge political and legislative power and not really a lot of money. Basically it is the difference between just over €2 billion compared to previous €54 billion, which was the figure for FP7.

In 2012 we expect tough negotiations on the Multiannual Financial Framework [MFF] 2014-2020. What role will the environmental agenda play, in comparison to past budgetary allocations?

Even though we are in times of economic crisis, I can without any doubt say that the proposal which came from the Commission gives more attention to the environment and climate than in the current financial period.

In all sectors – Common Agricultural Policy, fisheries, cohesion, research and also external funding mechanisms - we have made major steps ahead. The most obvious is the Common Agricultural Policy.

Until now the money devoted to the greening of the CAP has been only from its second pillar. It means that on average 23 % of the second pillar, designated for rural development, goes to environmental measures. In current prices it is approximately €20 billion for the overall 7-year period.

In the new MFF proposal, we are suggesting that one-third of the first pillar, which means direct aid to farmers, would be paid only under condition that they deliver some public good, which includes environmental measures.

We are also proposing that at least 25% of the second pillar should be used for environmental and climate measures. I am talking only about the minimum amount. One would expect that this figure would be higher, since today in some countries they reach as high as 60% in the second pillar.

So if you would combine this one-third and 25% it makes more than €100 billion, which means 5:1 compared to the current situation. If you compare the programme LIFE+ you will spot a 50% increase from €2.2 billion in fixed prices to comparable prices of €3.4 billion.

How about green investments in other policies apart from CAP?

If you look at the research, which I already mentioned, 60% of it should be earmarked for the environmental area. Changes are also expected  in external policies, where money will be more directly attributed to environmental protection. However, in many areas you can't link it in advance.

It is not so easy to keep the idea of the importance of greening our life and economy alive in times when we are facing a major economic crisis. So my sincere wish is that the member states understand how important that is, as we have understood it in the Commission. I hope that in the course of negotiations in the Council and in the European Parliament, this proposal gains the necessary support.

You talked about your former research portfolio which had much more money than the environment. In future, increased resources are to be shared between climate and environmental actions…

Whatever is done by the commissioner for Climate Action is done for the benefit of environment. I don't see any competition here. On the contrary, we are working hand-in-hand and whatever is done by one or the other benefits both.

For example, if I am making improvements in soil policy, it also helps to reduce CO2 emissions. Or if Commissioner [Connie] Hedegaard is helping to protect forests with some remediation measures, it is absolutely helping me in protecting biodiversity. It is difficult to draw the line. The climate policy very much supports the philosophy and logic of my portfolio.

Member states are currently transposing the directive on industrial emissions, which might help to decrease the environmental damage caused by air pollution. However, many companies, including in Slovakia, are still struggling with further green investments. What financial support from the EU resources can they count on, with the MFF 2014-2020 in mind?

Investments contributing to the implementation of the directive on industrial emissions will not be eligible for funding under the future regional and cohesion funds according to the current Commission proposal. But we propose that investments contributing to the reduction of air pollution in the context of urban environment improvement are eligible in both funds, and so we would welcome applications in this area.

Of course there are also other investment incentives which do not originate from the regional and cohesion funds, for example funds for research which are supporting eco-innovation, energy efficiency, in particular water efficiency, recycling of raw materials and so on.

One of the main EU 2020 initiatives is the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, which the European Commission introduced in September 2011. You have emphasised many times that recycling and proper waste management can be the key for green economic growth. What are the annual financial losses of wasting the potential of waste and what might be the gains?

According to a recent study published by the Commission, full implementation of EU waste legislation would save approximately €72 billion per year. It would increase the annual turnover of the EU waste management and recycling sector by €42 billion, which means creating over 400,000 jobs by 2020. The underlying problem is that prices do not always reflect the true cost of waste management and disposal. If they did, it would certainly have prevented creating  waste in the first place.

In addition, many member states are lacking adequate infrastructure for separate collection, recycling and recovery. So better use of the 'polluter pays' principle and of wider economic instruments by increasing the costs of disposal could help to ensure compliance. It could provide the necessary financial resources for waste management.

What is interesting in the case of Slovakia, you are one of the countries creating one of the lowest levels of waste per capita. On the other hand, according to available data, you are landfilling 82% and recycling only 8% of the created municipal waste. So you have a good part of the story and you also have the part of the story in which the situation can improve.

What priorities would you like to introduce or push through during 2012?

There are many new important initiatives scheduled for 2012. A lot of attention will go to water issues. We have a Water Blueprint which we plan to adopt before the end of the year. This will be a kind of policy response at EU level to address the implementation issues related to the current EU water policy framework, to develop measures to specifically tackle water availability, water quantity problems, or water efficiency in buildings.

The next important thing which we will propose this year is the so called 'Seventh Environmental Action Programme'. Its aim is to bring about the changes needed to meet the EU objectives for a smart, sustainable and inclusive economy for 2020 and beyond in the face of the changing and increasingly systemic nature of the environmental challenges we face.

On the basis of State of the Environment 2010 report by the European Environment Agency, we have a pretty good picture of where we need to pay close attention in the future. I would certainly like to focus on the questions of implementation. We will review the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive and the chemicals REACH legislation. We will focus on the implementation of the Resource Efficiency Roadmap and national reform programmes. We will address the shift of taxes from labour to more environmental issues, as well as the question of how to remove environmentally harmful subsidies and how to support green internal market.

2012 will also be very important from the point of international participation. At the Rio+20 meeting in June, really important questions of the green economy and governance on a global level in the environmental area will be addressed. International activity will also concentrate on the Convention on Biodiversity in Hyderabad, India.

Do you expect increased support from the current Danish presidency in comparison to the previous Polish or Hungarian presidencies?

I would like to say clearly that both Polish and Hungarian presidencies were doing a good job and we were cooperating really well with both. But the fact is that the Danish presidency has green growth among its four priorities, which I really appreciate and I think it is the signal of understanding of what we need to address. With their help, I hope I will be able to push the Commission´s green agenda further in this first half of the year.

I am very much looking forward to the cooperation which we will have in the context of international commitments at Rio+20 and also Hyderabad. Although this meeting will take place during the next Cyprus Presidency, agreement has to be prepared in the first half of the year. So it will be a pretty busy year with a presidency which is ambitious and hoping for the best.

Following your meetings with ministers, national authorities and NGOs during your visit to Slovakia, could you highlight any new findings that you, as a representative of the European Commission, were not aware of before this visit, if any?

I was also quite impressed by the level of knowledge and of discussion I have had with NGOs, raising really high media interest which I don't see in every country. I would dare to say there is also a good understanding and support to the resource efficiency concept that we have been promoting recently in the European Commission. It is kind of connecting interests of environment on one hand, and business and society on the other hand.

What are the issues where the European Commission would like to see greater progress from Slovakia?

I think without any doubt in the waste area, especially when you look to the issue of landfill which is still at the level of 82% in Slovakia. I think there is a major opportunity lying there. Nobody should really look to that as a question of the necessary requirements. It's a real opportunity if it's seen in a proper way, also for some important new jobs to be created here in Slovakia through better management of waste.

Air quality is another major problem. But this is not only a problem in Slovakia. It is a problem of many urban areas in specific regions in the EU member states. Obviously this will need attention in the future with regards to the development in crucial areas for air quality, for example in transport.

Finally, I would mention the implementation of some pieces of legislation which are linked to the protection of nature, like habitats, the environmental impact assessment and strategic impact assessment.

These are the areas where more attention in the future would be needed. Otherwise I do consider Slovakia as a country which is not lagging behind and does not have outstanding level of infringement. At the beginning of the year, eight environmental infringements were open. This is an average situation for an EU member state.

Slovakia really needs to understand that it has extremely beautiful nature and it is important to protect something so valuable. If you destroy it once, it's very hard to go back. In all the recent discussions I have heard about conflicts of values and interests, I think the question of the natural and cultural heritage is something which you should be proud of and not see it as an obstacle for development. This is a message which I would definitely like to pass on to the Slovak citizens.

Slovakia did not comply with the directive on waste even though the deadline expired in December 2010. What development and actions will follow on behalf of the Commission in the light of information given during discussions with the Minister of Environment on the current state of transposition?

Well, as you know if something's lagging behind, we start to remind the states to speed up by launching infringement proceedings. First the EC sends a letter of formal notice, then a reasoned opinion. If things still do not move, we have no other option than going to court.

We have this infringement at this stage against Slovakia. I was informed by the authorities that the law is more or less ready, but due to early elections there will be a bit more of a delay. My message was that as soon as possible after the new government is  created and the new parliament is in power, they should speed up the adoption..

This is not because it would help the European Commission. It would help you. It will also create a stable, predictable framework for the business sector here in Slovakia. It's difficult to say at this precise moment what the next steps will be. They basically depend on how the situation will evolve. We will certainly do our part of the job, which is issuing reminders that the transposition is part of the obligations which the member states have undertaken and we have to ensure that these obligations are fulfilled.

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