EU Environment Council round-up

Climate, air quality, deals give UK cause for celebration at end of EU presidency

The UK chaired the last environment ministers' meeting of its EU presidency yesterday, claiming it had achieved all its main policy goals including the finalisation of new legislation on air pollution and acidification and considerable progress on a framework directive on water.

Deputy prime minister John Prescott claimed "an historic day for Europe and for the UK presidency" after negotiators forged a deal on the sharing out of the EU's target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 8% between member states (ENDS Daily 17 June).

Ministers also reached political agreement on an AIR QUALITY daughter directive which sets limit values from 2005 for sulphur dioxide, particulate matter and lead in ambient air and from 2010 for oxides of nitrogen. Mr Meacher said the directive would make a "major contribution" not only to air quality but also to tackling acidification.

Political agreement on another proposed directive on the SULPHUR CONTENT OF LIQUID FUELS is also likely to aid efforts to reduce acidification (ENDS Daily 10 June). From 2003, the sulphur content of heavy fuel oil, which is used in industry, will be generally limited to 1%. However, several countries - most likely to be Portugal, Spain, Greece and Italy - will be able to apply a limit of up to 3% if they can demonstrate that their burning of heavy fuel oil does not contribute to acidification. A sulphur content limit of 0.2% has been agreed for gas oil, which is used in smaller plants, domestic heating and some ships, to apply from entry into force of the directive, with a lower limit of 0.1% to apply from 2008.

The UK is also pleased with having made progress on what it describes as the "horrendously complicated" WATER FRAMEWORK directive. Ministers are said to have achieved "a considerable degree of common understanding" which means that they should be able to reach a final common position fairly easily once the European Parliament has given its opinion. Adoption of the directive is likely by the end of the year.

The directive, which will for the first time to coordinate the EU's wide array of water quality laws, was the only cause of public disagreement between ministers and EU environment commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard. She said member states were wrong to introduce greater flexibility in the time limits for complying with the directive's standards, which in some cases could mean that they would not be met for up to 34 years.

In the text agreed on Tuesday, member states will have a 10-year period in which to put together a "river basin management plan" that will require an analysis of water quality in their river basins, a monitoring programme, measures to achieve specific targets based on the broad descriptions of "good" quality set out in the directive and a commitment to continuous improvement. After that, member states have six years to achieve the improvements, but this can be extended unilaterally by up to 18 years if a country finds it cannot "reasonably" reach the targets.

Ms Bjerregaard said she hoped the Parliament would restore her original proposal under which member states would be allowed derogations for a further 12 years only.

Progress on the other significant issues on the Council agenda was as follows:

* CO2 from cars

Ministers called on the European Commission to continue discussions with the European car manufacturers' association ACEA on its proposal to voluntarily reduce average carbon dioxide emissions from new cars. They pointed to "ambiguities and outstanding issues" in ACEA's latest proposal, singling out an assumption made by the car industry that very low sulphur fuel would soon be widely available. Junior UK environment minister Michael Meacher, a deal was "extremely close" he expected it to be finalised at ministers' next meeting in October.

* HGV emissions:

Ministers held a first discussion on a proposed directive to limit emissions from diesel-powered heavy goods vehicles. A concern raised by Sweden, Germany and Austria is that the Commission's proposal sets no values for emission limits beyond 2000. They called for at least indicative values to be set for 2005, bringing the law into line with other proposed directives for cars and vans. Another bone of contention was whether member states should be allowed to offer tax incentives to consumers to buy HGVs with emissions lower than the limits proposed in the directive. The UK, Sweden, Luxembourg and Finland argued in favour of allowing such incentives.

* GMO deliberate release:

Ministers also held a first discussion on a proposal to revise an existing EU law on the deliberate release of genetically modified organisms. According to a Council statement, ministers were "generally positive" of the proposal and are expected to be able to reach a common position at their meeting in December. The parliament is due to give its opinion in October. Key points of discussion included whether the proposal adequately meets risk assessment, monitoring and ethical issues and how far it should go in meeting public demands for labelling of modified foods and participation in approval processes. In a clear example of the controversy surrounding this issue, ministers also separately discussed import bans imposed by Austria and Luxembourg on one of the first modified crops to be approved in the EU (see story below).

Ministers also reached a common position on an amendment of the regulation establishing the EUROPEAN ENVIRONMENT AGENCY. They also expressed "deep concern" at a report published by the agency earlier this month (ENDS Daily 2 June) which showed slow progress in tackling many of the pressures on Europe's environment. They pointed to the importance of dealing with these on a pan-European conference and looked forward to adopting several new agreements to tackle specific pollutants including as heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants at a meeting of central, eastern and western European environment ministers in ÅRHUS next week.

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

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