Sustainable development review: weak on ambition and targets

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The Commission finally presented its review of the EU’s strategy on sustainable development on 13 December 2005. The review lacks clear targets and is unlikely to strengthen this “overarching objective” of all EU policymaking.

The Commission’s communication on the SDS review present itself as a “fine-tuning” of the 2001 strategy. Although the February 2005 stocktaking identified several unsustainable trends (see EURACTIV 15 Febr 2005) , the Commission apparently does not see a need to strengthen the strategy.

The communication is a long list of implementations and actions that were already in the pipeline and presents this as a “stronger focus”, with a “clearer division of responsibilities, wider ownership, broader support, a stronger integration of the international dimension and more effective implementation and monitoring”.

The review’s chapter on “key issues” lacks consistency. It mentions for example that the EU “uses a disproportional share of the world’s natural resources” and states the need to reduce the EU’s ‘ecological footprint’, but in the key actions connected to the same chapter does not come further than the proposal to “promote eco-innovation and to expand the market for eco-technologies”.

In the chapter on sustainable transport, it re-introduced the idea of promoting alternatives to road transport, a strategy that was presented in its 2001 White Paper on Transport as “modal shift” but that has not got off the ground in the last five years.

The communication is a bit clearer on responsibilities and ownership:

  • the Commission will submit a progress report every two years, based on the set of indicators adopted in February 2005;
  • Council and Parliament will discuss the progress made every two years
  • EcoSoc (the European Economic and Social Committee) and the Committee of the Regions will have to build support for action and organise regular stakeholder discussions;
  • the Commission will review the SDS again in 2009;
  • member states are to review their SD strategies and undertake a peer review process to identify good practices; they could also set up independent advisory councils.

The chapter on instruments and tools shows weaknesses again:

  • the tool of “sustainability impact assessment” of EU policies is mentioned in the background text but in the proposed action, the word ‘sustainability” disappears and the text states that all policies need to undergo “impact assessments”
  • the EU should use the “full range of policy instruments” but the idea of “getting the prices right” is mentioned in the background, not in the concrete actions proposed;
  • the Commission should also “integrate sustainability into its new communication strategy”;
  • business leaders and stakeholders should start a process of “urgent reflection”.

Green NGOs expressed disappointment over the Commission's review. The European Environmental Bureau called the document "a step backwards" compared with the 2001 Sustainable Development Strategy and called on the incoming Austrian Presidency to convert this Commission review "into the visionary, ambitious and concrete strategy that the European Council asked for half a year ago". John Hontelez, Secretary of the EEB said: "The Commission basically withdraws as leader for sustainable development".

WWF called the review "a set of hollow promises" and urges the Commission's DGs to include sustainable development "into their annual work plans and budget requests for all measures proposed".

The European Sustainable Development Strategy  (SDS) was agreed at the European Council in Gothenburg in 2001. In the run-up to the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, the EU also adopted a communication on the external dimension of SD to integrate the global aspects of this strategy.

The Commission was supposed to review the SDS "at the beginning" of the new Commission's mandate but several postponements indicated that the Commission's services were struggling with the review. In February 2005, the Commission agreed on an "initial stocktaking and future orientations" communication and in May it presented Guiding Principles on Sustainable Development, which were adopted by the European Council one month later.

Sustainable development is enshrined in the EU Treaty as the "overarching" principle of all European policies. But the vagueness of the concept of sustainable development and inherent problems of operationability, together with the EU's increasing focus on economic competitiveness and the effects of globalisation, has decreased the EU leaders' interest in this issue. It is significant that there is a special Council of Ministers for competitiveness but not for sustainable development. 

  • The European Council will have a first debate on the SDS review on 15-16 December 2005;
  • The EEB is organising a conference on the sustainable development strategy in Brussels on 20 January.

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