EU Environment Council round-up

Ministers reach agreement on four legislative dossiers, drop EEA regulation over language row

EU environment ministers held their first Environment Council meeting under the UK presidency in Brussels yesterday, rubber-stamping four EU environmental laws and discussing progress on others. Despite the packed agenda, sources present at the meeting described it as relaxed or even dull.

Ministers discussed progress on climate policy-making (see separate article in today's issue) and held an open debate on an air quality directive to set new standards for four pollutants (ENDS Daily 23 March). Another highlight of the meeting was a go-ahead given by ministers for talks intended to lead to an EU-wide voluntary agreement on improving the fuel efficiency of cars (see below).

In a notable setback, ministers failed to reach a scheduled common position on revising the regulation that underpins the European Environment Agency. The EU presidency had proposed giving the agency some flexibility over its formal responsibility to give equal weight to all 11 official EU languages. The suggestion was "politically sensitive," according to a Council spokesperson, and led to the whole dossier being dropped from the meeting agenda.

The dossiers on which formal agreement was reached were the following:

* LIGHT VANS DIRECTIVE (common position): Under the directive, new emissions standards and requirements for on-board diagnostics are to be introduced for commercial vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes in weight from 2000. Belgium abstained from the decision yesterday. The proposal now goes back to the European Parliament, and is expected eventually to be subject to "conciliation" negotiations between the two institutions to clear up remaining differences, particularly over whether the directive should set binding emissions limits to be met in 2005 as well as the 2000 limits originally planned by the European Commission. Conciliation talks could be held jointly with negotiations on another "Auto/Oil" directive on car emissions, ministers indicated yesterday, and indicated that the two dossiers would "probably" be merged into a single directive.

* LANDFILL DIRECTIVE (political agreement**): With the agreement, the final shape of the directive is now clear since the European Parliament, though it disagrees with some provisions adopted by the Council, has limited powers over the measure. The directive will set out new licensing requirements for the majority of EU landfill sites and will require the volume of biodegradable waste landfilled to be reduced to 35% of 1995 levels by 2016. Ministers accepted 13 amendments made by the European Parliament in its February first reading, including one to apply record-keeping requirements to all landfills, whether or not covered by the new licensing controls.

* SOLVENTS/VOC EMISSIONS DIRECTIVE (political agreement**): Ministers reached final agreement on the directive, which will limit emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the industrial use of solvents. The proposal, which aims to reduce ground-level ozone, envisages an emissions cut of at least 50% of 1990 levels by 2010. There is a derogation clause allowing companies that have recently invested in abatement equipment to exceed the limits "so as to avoid these plants being required to invest precipitately". There is also the option for governments to allow "burden sharing" so that different industries or plants can achieve varying levels of emissions cuts, but achieving the national target.

* CO2 MONITORING DECISION (political agreement**): This modification of an existing Council decision lays down rules for monitoring of carbon dioxide emissions in the EU beyond 2000 and expands the range of gases covered to all man-made greenhouse gases. Under the decision, EU countries will have to measure emissions in accordance with methodologies agreed at the Kyoto international climate negotiations last December.

** (n.b.) Ministers have effectively reached common positions on the three dossiers above, according to a Council spokesperson, but each require linguistic revision before they can be formally adopted as such. All the agreements will be converted into common positions in the next few weeks without further substantive discussions, the spokesperson said.

Ministers also held discussions on several other legislative and non-legislative dossiers, the main ones being the following:

* CAR CO2 EMISSIONS AGREEMENT: As we forecast last week (ENDS Daily

19 March), ministers backed further discussions on drafting an EU-level voluntary agreement with industry on improving the fuel efficiency of cars rather than calling for the imposition of legally-based targets. The Council instructed the Commission to examine a recent proposal from EU car makers, which UK environment minister Michael

Meacher described as a "significant improvement" on previous offers and "a good basis for negotiation," which ministers said they hoped would lead to a final version for their approval at their June meeting.

* WATER FRAMEWORK DIRECTIVE: Ministers listened to a progress report on the water policy framework directive, which is designed to protect surface and groundwater by coordinating measures in river basins. According to the Council conclusions, ministers "agreed that work should be pursued with a view to making substantial progress at [their next meeting] in June".

* SULPHUR IN LIQUID FUELS DIRECTIVE: Ministers noted progress on the proposed directive to combat acidification by reducing sulphur content of heavy fuel oil and gas oil. This may also be a topic for discussion in the June ministerial.

* COMMISSION ON SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: In view of the sixth session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) in April, ministers welcomed the CSD's decision to focus on freshwater and industry and set out EU positions on international water policy to be taken at the April meeting.

* BIODIVERSITY CONVENTION: Ministers adopted a detailed political approach that they will take at the Fourth Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity to be held in Bratislava, Slovenia, in May.

Follow Up:
EU Council of Ministers, tel: +32 2 285 6111. The full text of the Council statement on the meeting is available on the web.

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