EU Environment Council round-up

Ministers move forward on climate, air pollution, sustainable development, marine protection

EU environment ministers held the first of two formal Environment Councils scheduled under the Finnish EU presidency in Luxembourg yesterday. Here is a round-up of the main developments:

* Directives on national emissions ceilings and ozone:

The highlight of the session was an open debate on two draft air pollution directives - one setting national emissions ceilings on emissions of air pollutants that cause acidification, eutrophication and ground level ozone formation, and the other maximum concentrations of ozone in ambient air.

The debate was dominated by complaints from southern countries that Commission-proposed national emissions ceilings were too strict and that less ambitious targets they have signed up to under a parallel UN national emissions ceilings protocol were more appropriate (ENDS Daily 12 October).

However, the Commission appears to be sticking firm to its stricter targets. According to a source at the meeting, EU environment commissioner Margot Wallström will refuse to sign the UN protocol if EU countries do not show a "greater willingness" to move towards the emissions targets in the draft directive.

Moving to the draft ozone directive, the discussion revealed similar geographical differences between EU countries over the Commission's proposal for a long-term objective to reduce levels of ground-level ozone to below 120 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) (ENDS Daily 9 June).

Almost all countries agreed that it was necessary to set an "interim target" in which the 120 ug/m3 level is exceeded no more than 20 times in any year, compared with a current EU average of 60 exceedances. However, France, Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal indicated difficulties with the longer-term objective.

Italian minister Edo Ronchi said he would have to "look in more detail" at the plans and stressed that the unpredictable nature of ozone formation made it very difficult to control. His views were endorsed by ministers from Greece, Portugal and Spain, where ozone levels exceeded 180ug/m3 some 40 times last year. However, French environment minister Dominique Voynet retorted that governments should not "sit on their hands" over the ozone problem, although she admitted that France was "not well equipped" to say whether it could meet the long-term objective.

* Cardiff environmental integration process:

Ministers adopted a position paper on how the Cardiff process of integrating environmental concerns into EU sectoral policy-making should move forward at the Helsinki summit in December. Discussions on the paper took two hours longer than expected, although officials insisted that this was due to "drafting issues" rather than substantive differences between delegations.

In a paper that closely matches a compromise draft presented to diplomats before the meeting (ENDS Daily 11 October), environment ministers ask their counterparts in other Council formations to consider setting "sector-specific targets, timetables for further measures and indicators."

To assist the process, they call for a rapid implementation of the Kyoto climate change protocol, improvements in the "eco-efficiency of production and consumption" and an "early decision" on the issue of energy taxation - with the latter reference kept separate from a call for greater internalisation of external costs at the insistence of Spain. The ministers also urge EU heads of government to draw up a comprehensive sustainable development programme for the EU by 2001.

* Deal on new car carbon dioxide emissions

Ministers formally approved a voluntary agreement negotiated between the European Commission and the Japanese and Korean car industry associations (Jama & Kama) under which they pledge to reduce average carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from their vehicles to 140 grams per kilometre (g/km) by 2009 (ENDS Daily 12 August).

The target is the same as that in a similar agreement concluded with the European car manufacturers' association, Acea (ENDS Daily 6 October 1998). Although Acea has complained that its target is a year earlier than the Japanese and Korean car-makers, ministers endorsed the European Commission's position that the agreements are "equivalent". The Commission says the Asian companies start from a different base because they sell a higher proportion of four-wheel drive cars that emit more CO2.

* Climate change strategy:

In a position paper, ministers set out views on the state of progress on efforts to fight global warming. The text represents the EU's stance for the fifth conference of parties (COP-5) to the UN climate change convention in Bonn later this month.

COP-5 will tackle the issue of support for developing countries that voluntarily limit emissions of six greenhouse gases, while the thorny issue of emissions trading between developed countries will be tackled at COP-6 next year. At yesterday's meeting, ministers agreed to push for a ban on developing countries using overseas development aid to purchase "emissions credits" under a future Kyoto protocol international emissions trading system.

Turning to emission-reduction efforts closer to home, the Council expressed "concern" at the slow progress being made to agree EU coordinated programmes of measures designed to implement the Kyoto protocol, particularly in the fields of transport, energy, industry, agriculture and taxation.

* Accidental marine pollution decision:

Unanimous political agreement was reached on a Council decision which will create a legal framework for cooperation in the field of accidental marine pollution. A budget of euros 1m will be allocated to setting up an EU-wide computer system facilitating the exchange of information between countries. The council also unexpectedly voted to include exchange of information on munitions dumped at sea in the system after having previous rejected calls by the European Parliament to do so.

* Central and eastern European nuclear plants:

Austrian environment minister Martin Bartenstein submitted a memorandum outlining his country's concern over the way in which Slovakia is planning to close two Soviet-designed reactors at the Bohunice power plant. According to Austria, the plan to shut the reactors in 2006 and 2008 respectively is "in no way compatible" with an agreement between Slovakia and the EU to close the plant in the "medium term".

The memorandum insists that the reactors, along with similar ones at Ignalina in Lithuania and Kozloduy in Bulgaria, should be shut down at the date of their countries' accession to the EU. Austria's position was strongly supported by both the French and German environment ministers, according to sources at the meeting.

* German call for "sulphur-free" motor fuels:

The German delegation submitted a memorandum calling on the European Commission to propose before the end of the year to require all petrol and diesel sold in the EU to be "sulphur-free" from 2007. Environment commissioner Margot Wallström replied that the request "could be taken up at a later stage" but that she would not include further sulphur limits in an "updating" proposal on the 1998 fuel quality directive that the Commission is bound to make this year.

According to the German memorandum, sulphur-free fuels are necessary to enable the introduction of new engine technologies which could cut carbon dioxide and small particle emissions. Under the current directive, sulphur levels in petrol and diesel will be pegged at a maximum of 150 and 350 parts per million (ppm) respectively next year falling to 50ppm in both in 2005. From 2007, Germany now wants this limit cut further to 10ppm, which it says is effectively sulphur free.

"Several delegations" supported Germany's proposal, ENDS Daily understands.

* Benzene and carbon monoxide directive:

The EU presidency reported briefly on the progress of a draft air quality daughter directive which will set limits on levels of benzene and carbon monoxide in ambient air, emissions of which come largely from road traffic (ENDS Daily 2 December 1998). According to Commission calculations, already agreed measures "do much to ensure" that the levels will be met. There is therefore a high likelihood that the draft directive will be formally approved at the next Environment Council in December.

* UN biosafety protocol:

The European Commission reported to ministers on recent talks in Vienna on the proposed UN biosafety protocol to regulate worldwide trade in living genetically modified organisms (ENDS Daily 21 September)

According to the EU executive, the meeting narrowed the positions between the parties' positions on labelling and information requirements and the question of equality with international agreements such as those supervised by the World Trade Organisation, according to the Commission. "We have been given new hope by what happened in Vienna," environment minister Margot Wallström told reporters.

Follow Up:
EU Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6111.

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