The EU executive approved an expansion of the so-called LIFE programme, including a rise in funding to €3.2 billion for the 2014-2020 budget, up from the current €2.1 billion package that expires in 2013.
The proposal includes €800 million for climate action and would encourage 'integrated' financing of environmental projects using money from other EU sources, governments and private organisations.
Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said the proposal represents a “serious increase” for a programme that has helped finance environmental initiatives at the local and regional level the EU, as well as in some candidate and accession countries, since 1992.
But environmental groups said the proposal was too timid.
“LIFE is one of Europe’s big success stories, delivering huge public benefits to nature and our well-being for a tiny bit of investment,” said Ariel Brunner, head EU policy at BirdLife Europe, a coalition of conservation organisations.
A BirdLife statement called for a LIFE budget of at least €10 billion.
More flexibility sought
The Commission wants to make co-financing more flexible and to accelerate financial approval for local and regional projects to prevent what EU officials and some beneficiaries have said is a weighty approval process that discourages innovation and action.
Before the proposal was adopted by the Commission, Potočnik also said changes were intended to better coordinate environmental projects across EU programmes, opening the possibility of coordinated planning with projects financed through the Common Agricultural Policy’s rural development funds.
The Commission estimates that the new programme would help regional governments improve waste and water management. It would also improve air quality for 10% of the EU population, or 50 million people, Potočnik said.
Asked by EurActiv if the air-quality funding is adequate given recent studies showing a reversal in some pollution-reduction efforts, he defended the targets.
“That’s the philosophy of these integrated projects, so that you pool the money from various sources and [have] much more influence than in the past,” Potočnik said. “These targets are far from being non-ambitious.”
In recent years, the LIFE programme has funded woodland restoration in Ireland, technology for treating industrial wastewater in Italy, a Dutch project to reduce noise pollution in coastal ports, and phosphate decontamination of several Polish lakes.