EEA Director: environmental regulation not to blame for Lisbon failure

Better implementation – not cutting down on environmental legislation – is required to balance out the three dimensions of the Lisbon strategy, EEA Director Jacqueline McGlade has told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

Jacqueline McGlade is Director of the European Environment Agency (EEA)

The Commission’s mid term review of the EU sustainable development agenda (Gothenburg strategy) was quite negative, saying that the strategy has so far failed to deliver. What do you think were the reasons for that and what would you recommend to put the strategy back on track?

Perhaps the best way to describe this is to go back to the basics of sustainable development and the role of environmental regulation to help deliver the quality of life that we expect in Europe. And fundamentally, what I would like to speak about is not why Gothenburg hasn’t worked but more where the emphasis should be.

I think there is a misunderstanding but also a deeply rooted prejudice that the hegemony of environmental regulation is there for its own sake. In other words, that we have environmental regulation to provide a constraint on the way in which we develop, economically, socially etc. And that is the way it is perceived by many part of industry and by many parts of government.

But in fact I think that is to confuse what is the fundamental driving force of society and where environmental regulation fits in. And when you think about the plea to make Europe more competitive – and underpinning that is productivity – , the Lisbon Agenda, if you compare Europe with the US, we actually work 10% less a year. So of course, when it comes to issues of competitiveness and productivity, we will always be in a different mode compared to our competitors. So, to then say that environmental legislation is the reason why we’re not competitive and why sustainable development is not really able to move forward is a misconception about what regulation does.

So, in a nutshell, what do you think is the reason Gothenburg has so far failed to deliver?

It is because people have targeted the wrong suspects.

Which means there has not been sufficient emphasis on the environment, on jobs…?

No, I’m saying that the arguments were all mixed up. And therefore, to develop a clear thinking about competitiveness, employment and social well-being does not require bringing in environmental regulation as the party to blame. Quite the reverse, in fact. When you look at the past decade, environmental regulation has helped bring about an increased efficiency of resources, an increased level of innovation, an increased awareness of where we are potentially in danger of causing constraints on resources.

But the strategy has apparently failed according to the Commission mid-term review, for example on decoupling economic growth from transport growth. In a way, it was implying that the strategy was not going far enough…

But environmental regulation is not the cause. And at the moment environmental regulation is very much seen as the root cause of why decoupling hasn’t occurred, why it has not been possible for example to bring the whole aegis of sustainable and eco-efficiency into there.

It’s not about that. It’s about the way in which the economy itself operates. So the target is wrong. Fundamentally, at root, the way Europe has decided to organise itself […] actually demands environmental regulation. But that is environmental regulation embedded in a recognition of how many hours we wish to work, what kind of settings we wish to live in, what quality of life we expect, our exposure to contaminants, to live in a healthy environment. These are all expectations and environmental regulation can only deliver a part of it.

So what do you suggest to improve delivery on the Gothenburg strategy?

I think overall, there has got to be a recognition that Europe has to face up to some choices. And if we look at the footprint, at the impact of Europe on the rest of the globe, it is quite striking that Europe cannot deliver on Gothenburg without recognising that fact, that it relies tremendously on outside of Europe to deliver it. It’s a sort of ‘laisser-faire’ approach that we have. Lack of concentration on delivering [the Gothenburg strategy] has been allowed to proceed because of [this] big buffer surrounding Europe.

But if we were to say that we were to achieve [the Gothenburg strategy] within Europe’s boundaries, then I actually think you would see a much more rigorous and vigorous approach to how we use resources and what that means in terms of sustainable development.

Now I take you to the Nordic countries that have developed a sort of within-country view as well as a European perspective. And there you see a fundamental shift in how all the various elements – including the approach to Kyoto and climate change – are viewed. And it is seen very much as a sort of national pride that Sweden can run its own business, run its own resources, take care of itself within its own boundaries, whilst at the same time, being a good citizen within the European constellation.

Turning now to climate change, the Commission has highlighted its priorities for the period post 2012 and the first commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. It said its main focus would be to get other big emitters onboard a broader scheme to reduce global warming outside the Kyoto Protocol. So, as Europe tries to get more people on board, you’re saying we should do more within our boundaries?

No I’m saying we have to behave within our own boundaries as we would wish others to behave. So we can’t assume that the non-ability to deliver sustainable development within our own boundaries can be done at the expense of others. We can hardly then turn around and ask China and India to do something within their own boundaries. 

So I am saying that in order to make the prospect of working with Europe a promising thing to do for these countries, we have to be seen to be responsible and looking after our own resource base at the same time. Good trading partners treat their own resources in the same way as we would wish others to treat theirs. Otherwise, it’s very hypocritical. 

A lot of introspection is required I think at this point to make it absolutely certain that we are not only leaders in a global sense by putting in place a protocol and request national governments to behave in a particular way but it goes much further than that. So working with China and India, there’s got to be a recognition that not only would we share technologies, but that we also share thinking. And when it comes to sustainable development, one has to recognise that China for example is a lot further down the road in sustainable development thinking than many countries are within Europe.

What are your suggestions for the post-2012 targets debate?

Well I think that what the EU is proposing is actually the right thing to do. To look for strong partnership with the most energy-intensive economies that are developing: China and India. But let’s get our own house in order before we start criticising others.

But the EU is already seen as a leader in fighting climate change

It is seen as a leader in a very narrow and tightly defined area. But what [the Gothenburg strategy] presents is a much more challenging set of targets across the whole set of resources not just simply in greenhouse gas emissions. So that challenge is being met by certain countries – Sweden is an example – where it’s taken systematically all the way through, which resources are being used. That kind of thinking, down to the community level, is what is required probably across Europe [to deliver on Gothenburg]

So you would like to see more involvement from the member states and at local level, not just EU level?

It requires all levels to participate, absolutely. But there has to be leadership at EU level that percolates down so that the implementation at local level has some resonance at European level.

This is obviously a very difficult task to do and it hasn’t particularly functioned so far with the Lisbon strategy, which is supposed to be the mantra of EU policy. Is this not too much of a tall order for the EU?

I think for the EU to be a truly competitive region in the world, there has to be a significant step forward into that integrated thinking across all levels, all scales of government and governance. How it’s achieved is a matter of national preference, whether it’s through a free market approach, through legislation, through Non-Governmental Organisations or civil society. But at the end there has to be an accounting. And at this point, one of the difficulties in assessing Gothenburg and any of these longer-term strategies is our ability to stand back and understand what works and what doesn’t work.

So my other plea in making a successful future for Europe, what makes people improve, is when you can show them progress or where you can show a benchmark against which performance can be evaluated. That openness and transparency needs to occur now across all sectors so that we can really begin to understand at European level but also in the local setting just what is the contribution of different sectors to sustainability.

It’s a plea that’s running off into a world which is very much driven by business and the market place that we don’t forget the necessary means to capture information which can be brought back to the public so that people can assess if we’re going in the right direction or not.

Is this is part of the EEA’s role?

I think that, more and more, our job is to report back to the citizens. That’s even true of private companies because, in a way, the space that they occupy, whether on the marketplace or physically on the ground or using resources; it could be argued that in the end [it] is a public good. And therefore, one has to at some stage ask companies to report back on how that public good is being used.

Coming back to implementation at member state and EU levels, we’re seeing different interpretations as to how to National Allocation Plans for CO2 emissions trading should be drawn up (UK case). Do you think too much flexibility has been given to member states? Should the Commission show even more leadership in assessing those plans than it has done so far? 

First it is remarkable how successful this [emissions trading system] has actually been. We will have teething problems, there is no doubt. During the course of this year the [European Environment] Agency and the Commission are looking at how it worked out in each country – so an evaluation of the plans – in terms of improved guidance for particular sectors. But I regard this as being fine tuning because in the end, for the market to work, you actually have to create the cap the wherewithal for the trading to occur, and that has happened.

Individual countries – whether the UK or others – might come under tremendous industrial pressure or pressure from other parts of society to try to revise these numbers and the role of the Commission is to hold firm on that and not to negotiate. I don’t see anything wrong in countries at this stage challenging or asking questions because it is the only way that it will improve. But I would hope that by this year (2005), many of those teething problems will have been resolved. And certainly by the next round, we will be looking at a much more tightly coupled set of National Allocation Plans to individual site emissions which is part of the European Pollutant Emissions Register (EPER). That’s where it all comes together and that’s one of the roles of the agency, to tie the national allocation to the summation of all the individual installations and sites. In the second round, we would hope that we know sufficient about the individual sites and sufficient about how the national plans look to try to force a much tighter relation between the two.

Turning back to the Lisbon strategy, to illustrate the Commission’s emphasis on growth and jobs, President Barroso used an analogy explaining that he has got three child [corresponding to the three pillars of the Lisbon strategy], and that the sickest one – growth – should be taken care of in priority, meaning the two other ones (social inclusion and the environment) would be set aside for a while. He added that impact assessments would be made on all legislation to ensure it does not impede economic growth. Do you think it makes sense to go down this route?

Let me wear a hat as a business person. I would say that if I had three companies and one of them was not doing well, I would probably concentrate on the two that were doing well. So there is a counter-argument to the one sick child and the three children.

But more seriously, I think the analogy has been overworked. I find a dichotomy in the discussion in the Lisbon agenda between growth for ‘growth sake’ and ‘real growth’ which is a year on year improvement in efficiency leading to eco-innovation, investment in R&D, new industries emerging and new competitiveness. As opposed to the dialogue that we seem to be slightly marooned in which is that, by concentrating on the economy as the sick child and not really concentrating on the leaders, we seem to be almost reinforcing the parts of the economy that aren’t working well. So what I am pleased to see is that there will be a bid to support SME because in terms of the drivers in the local economies, these are the ones that potentially create a lot of the turnover. But I don’t think the answer is to say we will do away with environmental legislation or that we will reduce the level of legislation. Quite the opposite, many small companies actually do very well when legislation is clear and stable because they can build a business around it.

SMEs have long been asking for more legal certainty…

A much more rigorous look at the way member states implement legislation is what is required. It’s fine for the Commission to say we need more environmental impact assessment on the policies. But I don’t believe this is where the environmental impact assessments should really be focused. I think they should be focused on the implementation of the policies. When we look at policies at the different ways in which member states have been implementing the policies, we see tremendous difference across Europe, which lead to in one instance a lot of bureaucracy for a small business or very little. That’s when “the rubber hits the road” as we say in English. Don’t call the economy sick, just say that it perhaps needs to be more disciplined and more stable.

How can such high environmental standards be adapted to real life situation in the new member states who have a poorer environmental record? Can we reasonably see the same legislation apply throughout all EU countries in a consistent way?

This where some myth busting is required. I do believe that in many cases, the environmental standing in the new member states is not the apocalyptic vision that many people have. Yes there are some industrial hazardous areas without a doubt. But what the new member states bring to Europe is a tremendous resource-base which in many aspects is pristine.

So the caricature is wrong. What is in danger is that that those resources and landscapes will be accelerated to demise because of the rush to implement the acquis. What would be very useful is to pass over best practice and innovation so that the ills and the disasters that have plagued the older member states don’t get repeated.

If we only applied half of the European legislation, we would deliver tremendous outcomes to the population. So that’s where I think the emphasis should lie on.

And so proposing new legislation?

Yes. Or having new legislation that does away with the ones which need to be repealed or [the ones] which are no longer an environmental problem. What you shouldn’t forget is that in Europe you’ve had a tremendous improvements over the last 10-20 years in environmental quality. Which means there are some problems have literally gone away. And therefore, to have heavy legislation where year-on-year there’s virtually no change in the baseline levels [of pollutants] would imply that we would maybe do something else with the money that we’re spending. So new legislation could be extremely good, it could streamline what we’ve got. The new thematic strategies are just about that: streamlining the way in which we look at the environment. Make sure that things which are no longer necessary […], then we don’t do it anymore.

The Commission has to be very very clear about how it discusses competitiveness and the economy and not to mix up their arguments and to always force environmental cost-benefit analyses. Sometimes the environment is good enough in its own right to be looked after and protected. Mr Dimas has a role to play which is to hold the line which might means that sometimes you stand alone. Not fight for the environment but fight for the right of citizens to have a healthy environment. How to achieve it best has to now emerge now through a dialogue with the rest of the Commission.

There is one area which I feel is critical for the delivery of the Lisbon agenda and that is regarding Europe’s land mass, the special aspect of Europe’s territory. We see acceleration in land use for urban areas and also roads [and] the transport network. If we were to place all the policy aspirations under Lisbon onto the map of Europe, there is basically not enough room for all those aspirations to be met (the delivery of biomass into the renewable energy sector, the delivery of roads for transport). It’s like a time bomb waiting. And whoever gets their policy in first is likely to achieve [his goals]. But then the question is: can we do with or without some of the other [policies]? For me, the critical aim of the Lisbon agenda is to bring all of this information onto the table now so that real choices can be made and that we’re not left in an ad hoc way where first past the post gets the territory before those who are somewhere down the line. 

Read the shorter news version of this interview.


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