Business needs certainty
If there is one thing business dislikes more than restrictive legislation, it is regulatory uncertainty. While firms will sometimes protest that certain rules have the potential to cripple them, the business community can cope with most legal requirements imposed on it. But only provided it is given a clear vision of how things will be done and when the most significant changes are due to happen. Unfortunately policy and legislation are not always as straightforward as industry would like them to be.
New legislation is rarely perfect. Some EU environmental policies have fallen through even before becoming fully fledged laws; others have done little to enhance environmental protection by being woefully bereft of ambition. Several more failed to produce the desired effects as member states stumbled through implementation (see pp 20-22).
The 2001 directive introducing strategic environmental assessments (SEAs) is a good case in point. It requires most infrastructure projects in Europe to undergo a thorough examination of their effects on the surrounding environment, including societal and political impacts. As it encourages open debate about the projects and promotes sustainability, it is a tool that few would criticise in principle.
However, SEA regulations can lead to highly undesirable outcomes, as Belgian academic Jos De Mulder told delegates at a London conference held by coastal issues NGO CoastNet. He pointed out how the interplay of various levels of government in his country – local, regional, national and federal – can be difficult to manage. It has often led to unnecessarily complex procedures that harm business without benefiting the environment.
Poorly implemented elements of the SEA directive, together with badly conducted consultation processes, have resulted in permits for offshore wind farms doing the rounds of government departments and national courts, being at first granted, then suspended, then re-granted and finally withdrawn. Nobody would say this is good for business. Nor is it the most effective way of protecting the environment.
Having to fumble through bits of unclear legislation can be dangerous for industry. Only a few years ago, Germany had very ambitious targets for wind power generation. Its plans have had to be scaled back, however, as it became clear that SEA rules would potentially halt many of the proposed developments. Spain’s wind industry, conversely, is now growing faster than it had anticipated thanks to a drive to iron out implementation difficulties before plans were put through the SEA process.
According to Mr De Mulder, limiting the number of objectives included in a SEA document is a good choice. Too many goals normally hinder transparency and confuse matters. He said that normally only a few issues will drive decision-making anyway. Interestingly for environmental policy-making as a whole, he stressed the importance of timing. When options are implemented is as important as what options are chosen.
EU policy makers are now saying at every opportunity how they are striving to ensure that the bloc’s environmental policies help Europe’s business community remain competitive with the rest of the world, rather than hinder its development.
The proposed renewable energy targets that the EU institutions have just started discussing will be a key driver in several sectors, including for SEA-dependent offshore wind farms. Once more, it is important for European business that all details are carefully thought through and that the EU’s climate and energy package is approved sooner rather than later.
Nadia Weekes, editor