EU money will now encourage green solutions to infrastructure problems, such as allowing natural wetlands to absorb excess water from heavy rain, instead of building concrete flood protection infrastructure.
In what green campaigners in Brussels view as a ‘Eureka moment’, the package will allow stone beaches to receive preferential funding for coastal protection, and river banks and marsh areas to be chosen for soaking up floodwaters and reducing water pollution.
"Building green infrastructure is often a good investment for nature, for the economy and for jobs,” Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said. “We should provide society with solutions that work with nature instead of against it, where that makes economic and environmental sense.”
Green infrastructure is often cheaper and more durable than traditional civil engineering solutions, according to the EU’s statement, which also noted that heat waves can be mitigated by biodiversity-rich parks, green spaces and fresh air corridors.
Europe’s biodiversity has been hammered over the last 50 years by habitat loss, land degradation and fragmentation, due to the rapid expansion of cities and transport infrastructure.
Theoretically, the new package will open the door to reversing this through the use of natural solutions that create jobs, and offer multiple health and environmental benefits.
Specifically, the new EU package proposes:
- Upgrading access to finance for green infrastructure projects with an EU financing facility by 2014, and support from the European Investment Bank.
- Supporting EU-level projects and carrying out an assessment of the options for an EU-wide green infrastructure network by the end of 2015.
- Developing guidance before 2014 to show how green infrastructure can be integrated into policy over the next budgetary period.
- Promoting green infrastructure in areas such as agriculture, forestry, nature, water, marine and fisheries, regional and cohesion policy, climate change mitigation and adaptation, transport, energy, disaster prevention and land use policies.
- Improving research and data, and promoting innovative technologies.
Green groups rushed to welcome the new proposal, which WWF hailed as “long overdue.”
“We cannot afford to keep pumping money into traditional engineering infrastructures when in many cases nature provides a more cost effective and lasting solution,” said Alberto Arroyo Schnell, a senior policy advisor at WWF.
The EU plans would also ease pressures on the environment caused by intensive farming and infrastructure such as dams and, levies and canals, according to the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).
Martina Mlinarić, a spokeswoman for the EEB, said that investing in green infrastructure would "deliver significant benefits in both economic and ecological terms.”
“The move from grey to green is vital to reaching the objectives which the EU set for 2020,” she said, “and not only in the field of environment.”
The package will now need to ensure that funding is routed from the EU’s cohesion and agricultural policies, currently being negotiated between EU states and the European Parliament.
One cautionary note was sounded by Birdlife Europe, which stressed that it expected to see a new impetus for strengthening Natura 2000, the EU’s ecological network, and to link this to EU states’ commitments to restore 15% of degraded ecosystems by 2020.
The Commission will review progress towards developing its green infrastructure goals and publish a report by the end of 2017.