Sustainability and post-Kyoto targets in the balance at EU summit

Heads of states and government are set to bring decisive input into the re-orientation of the EU sustainable development strategy and on post-2012 climate change reduction targets amid fears from environmental NGOs that the sustainability agenda will be relegated to second priority.

The review of the EU’s sustainable development policy (Gothenburg strategy) is on the menu at the summit of EU leaders on 22-23 March. 

Although little is expected in terms of concrete decisions, heads of state and governments will be discussing the general re-orientation of the policy, four years after it was adopted in Gothernburg, Sweden.

The mid-term assessment of the strategy published by the Commission on 9 February this year was pessimistic, admitting that the EU had failed to deliver on crucial long-term targets including social exclusion, climate change or threats to public health (see EURACTIV, 15 Febr. 2005).

Cautious not to divert from its priority goal of re-launching the fledgling EU economy with a simplified and focused Lisbon strategy, the Commission gave only general policy orientation as regards the future of the Gothenburg strategy. 

Meeting on 10 March, EU environment ministers reiterated their commitment to sustainable development and asserted that sound environmental policies do contribute the growth and jobs through eco-technologies and a better use of scarce natural resources (see EURACTIV, 11 March 2005).

EU leaders are expected to bring a decisive input to this debate and, possibly, define areas where they would consent to more legislative proposals by the Commission.

They will also decide to adopt or reject the ambitious targets put forward on 10 March by environment ministers for reducing greenhouse gas emissions after 2012 and the commitments made under the Kyoto protocol on climate change (post-Kyoto).

On the opening day of the summit, the Green 9 group of environmental NGOs urged EU leaders to add an additional goal to the Lisbon strategy: "make Europe the most resource and energy efficient economy in the world." The group, which, includes the likes of WWF, Greenpeace and the European Public Health Alliance, claims that the proposal got the support of Commission President José Manuel Barroso at a meeting one week before the summit. 

"Increasing energy and resource efficiency in Europe will improve competitiveness, boost innovation, create jobs, respect the environment and improve citizens health," said Martin Rocholl of Friends of the Earth Europe, a member of the Green 9. Saying that "most of the products and services in the EU could be produced with less resources and energy," Rocholl made the case for boosting Europe's investments in eco-technologies with an improved action plan for Environmental technologies (see EURACTIV's related LinksDossier). "The technology is already there," Rocholl said.

Business circles have called on the Commission to focus its action on economic growth as a precondition to employment and environment policies. In its spring economic outlook published on 21 March, the EU employers' organisation UNICE said the EU would "not be able to maintain [its] social and environmental ambitions if the economic pillar of sustainable development is not considerably strengthened".  

Reacting to the Commission assessment of the Gothenburg strategy in February, the European SME organisation UEAPME said the Commission's proposed focus on economic growth "must be supported" by the social and sustainable development agendas. "It is important to ensure that the recommendations of the review, such as those on improving energy efficiency, do not entail increasing the regulatory and administrative burden on SMEs," said UEAPME Secretary General Hans-Werner Müller. 

Tony Long of WWF's European Policy Office told EURACTIV about his concerns regarding the re-orientation of the EU sustainable development strategy which the Green 9 group of environmental NGOs fears could be relegated to a sort of second league, behind competitiveness and economic growth. 

Meeting with Commission President ahead of the summit, Long says José Manuel Barroso challenged this perception by reminding him that sustainable development is part of the Treaty whereas the Lisbon agenda is not. "To some extent, this reassured us," Tony Long told EURACTIV. But he remains sceptical about the Commission's move towards systematic impact assessments as part of the better regulation initiative announced by Commissioner Verheugen one week before the summit (see EURACTIV, 17 March 2005). He points out that the environmental benefits which are supposed to be included in the assessments are much harder to quantify than the economic costs. As a consequence, he fears the economic part of the assessment will almost automatically prevail over environmental considerations. However, Long does not lose all hopes about the future of the EU sustainable development policy. "We have allies in the Commission," he says. 

However, on the specific point of binding post-Kyoto targets currently being discussed by EU leaders, Long said he had doubts that they will actually be adopted at the summit. "We will press hard for it but I would not expect it," he said.

EU environment ministers meeting on 10 March set out ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets to tackle the global warming impact of human activities (see EURACTIV, 11 March 2005). They also reiterated their commitment to the EU's sustainable development policy, saying it could go along with the strong economic performance which the Commission's renewed Lisbon strategy is meant to deliver (see EURACTIV, 11 March 2005).

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