Green stats to drive EU resource-efficiency push

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Fresh environmental statistics ranging from household waste to energy consumption are expected to help the EU define the right mix of policies to decouple economic growth from natural resource use.

The report on ‘Environmental statistics and accounts in Europe‘, published on Friday (10 December), gathers key statistics from Eurostat and partner institutions.

It particularly focuses on the impact that European households have on the environment.

The Eurostat publication presents detailed accounts of material flows and air emissions. It also presents statistics on waste, water, chemicals, biodiversity, land use, agri­-environmental indicators, forestry, spending on environmental protection and environmental taxes.

The 350-page document represents an attempt to provide standardised information on various aspects of the environment “which enables us to identify environmental pressures related to our production and consumption patterns,” according to Walter Radermacher, director-general of Eurostat.

It should also provide opportunities to make green comparisons between the 27 EU countries and between the bloc and other parts of the world, to help evaluate progress towards environmental policy targets.

Environmental statistics are collected “with a particular regulatory or administrative purpose in mind,” Eurostat notes. Examples include the development of agri-environmental indicators for monitoring the integration of environmental concerns into the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the collection of waste statistics to monitor recycling rates.

The study complements a study by the European Environment Agency, entitled ‘European environment – State and Outlook 2010‘, which in November warned that rising global demand for natural resources will threaten economic health and social cohesion in Europe.

Household environmental accounts

The figures show that rises in income levels and household expenditure tend to lead to an overall rise in environmental impacts related to house­hold consumption as expenditure shifts from basic needs, such as food, to other consumption categories, such as leisure activities and communications.

In addition, European households are becoming smaller, with fewer people per household. This means that households are using more space, more goods and services, more energy and more water, as well as generating more waste and emissions per person, the report notes.

Statistics also show an increase in use and ownership of private cars, second homes and electronic consumer goods, as well as more frequent consumption of highly processed and packaged food.

All this has an impact on the environment as it generates additional waste.

Green taxation to change consumer behaviour

Eurostat notes that “the search for instruments capable of producing behavioural changes across all sectors at minimal cost and impact” is leading policymakers to pay much closer attention to “incentive­-based” economic tools for the environment.

Such market­-based instruments already exist in the form of fines, charges, taxes and tradable permit systems, which are “used to penalise those who pollute or misuse the environment,” help impose the principle of ‘polluter pays’ and serve as incentives to encourage environmentally-friendly behaviour.

One of the flagship initiatives of the ‘Europe 2020’ strategy is to boost efficiency in using resources and the EU executive is currently drafting a ‘roadmap to a resource-efficient Europe‘. The roadmap, which is set for publication in June 2011, may well include new initiatives to change consumer behaviour via markets and prices.

EU Environment Commissioner Janez Poto?nik stressed that changing price signals is a more efficient means of changing consumer behaviour than “the heavy hand of regulation”.

Energy tops EU green taxes

The statistics show that, in 2007, energy taxes accounted for 72% of total environmental taxes. Transport taxes were responsible for 23%, while pollution and resource taxes made up the remaining 5% in the EU­-27.

According to Eurostat, the share of environmental taxes in EU GDP remained relatively stable or slightly decreased from 1999 to 2007. However, “environmental taxes form an increasingly significant share of households’ and businesses’ tax expenditures,” it added.

Environmental taxes in the EU 27 accounted for 2.4% of GDP in 2008, but ranged from 1.6% of GDP in Spain to 5.7% in Denmark.

The office notes that there has been “green tax reform in some European countries,” with environmental taxes increasing with respect to other forms of taxation, such as labour taxes.

According to the European Commission, statistics are increasingly important for the definition, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of environmental policies.

Environmental accounts track the links between the environment and the economy at EU, national, regional and industry level.

In April 2010 the Commission adopted a proposal for a regulation on European environmental economic accounts, which seeks to establish a legal basis and framework for the collection, transmission and evaluation of European environmental economic accounts on:

  • Air emissions;
  • environment-related taxes, and;
  • macro-economic material flow accounts.

The Commission believes that monitoring of EU environmental policies on waste, climate change and sustainable consumption and production, for example, would be much more effective if good quality data existed linking the environment to the economy.

In their draft response to the proposal, MEPs in the European Parliament's environment committee welcomed the initiative, but asked for additional account modules to be created for water, waste, biodiversity, forests, energy, environmental subsidies and expenditure on environmental protection.

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