Environment Council Round-up

Other issues discussed at Monday s Environment Council

For the second time in succession, environment ministers completed what is normally a two-day meeting in just one, leaving little time for discussion of many issues. The Presidency s decision to concentrate almost entirely on climate change (ENDS Daily 3 February) reduced the time available for other subjects even further, though one national official told ENDS Daily that this had been a clever move by the Dutch, designed to focus on what all EU member states agree is the key issue of the moment.

However, ministers did discuss, or at least note the existence, of a range of other issues, many of which are due to be formally adopted at the next Environment Council, scheduled for June. A lot of things were discussed but not decided , one official told ENDS Daily. [The June meeting] will be a heavy Council.

*Apart from the agreement on targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the only issue on which a formal agreement was made was on a programme to promote the funding of environmental NGOs. Ministers reached a political agreement to provide Ecu10.6 million for supporting certain NGOs - reported to be primarily the European Environment Bureau and the World Wide Fund for Nature - from the beginning of 1988 to the end of 2001. Under the agreement, NGOs will be eligible for funding up to 50% of their budgets. The European Commission had proposed a 60% ceiling and Environment Commissioner Ritt Bjerregaard expressed disappointment after the meeting that ministers had clawed this back. Ministers are due to formally adopt the measure at the June Council.

Other main points of interest at the Council were discussions on the implementation of environmental law, development of the auto/oil programme on reducing vehicle exhaust emissions and improving fuel quality, and statements by national delegations on the vexed question of deliberate release of genetically modified organisms (see separate articles in this issue).

But these were only part of a busy agenda:

* Ministers held their first orientation debate on a Commission report on appropriate uses of voluntary environmental agreements. The final consensus reached was that voluntary agreements can enhance the implementation of environmental laws, but that they cannot replace national or community legislation . Some delegations are reported to have been particularly concerned to ensure that agreements are transparent and practical to enforce. One national official told ENDS Daily that EU-wide agreements are very difficult. It is not clear how you can guarantee commitment to them.

*The Commission presented a proposed directive on reducing emissions of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from the industrial use of solvents. According to a source, no member states registered major problems, so every effort will be made to reach political agreement in June.

*The Commission presented a communication on the use of environmental taxes and charges. A detailed debate on the issue is expected in June.

*The Commission presented a draft framework directive on water which it adopted just last week (ENDS Daily 26 February). There was virtually no debate on the proposal due to lack of time.

* The Austrian delegation made a statement describing the current tax exemption for kerosene, which is used as aviation fuel, as environmentally unjustifiable. It called on the Commission to further discuss possibilities of taxing kerosene through the draft directive on the taxation of energy products and welcomed forthcoming discussions of the issue in Ecofin and Transport Councils. The minutes of the Council note that a move by the EU to alter the taxation regime for kerosene would have to be coordinated internationally, and that it is exactly the same kind of consideration which plagued the proposal for a carbon dioxide tax.

*The Presidency highlighted the main topic to be discussed at the forthcoming informal ministerial meeting in April. The key subject of debate will be SMEs and the environment.

*EU ministers took two hours out of their discussions to hold a structured dialogue with environment ministers from 10 associated countries of central and eastern European. The meeting focused on climate issues, and particularly energy saving and joint implementation, under which one country can pay for greenhouse gas emission reductions in another. Officials present at the meeting report that little new or substantive emerged.

*Ministers adopted an amended directive on environmental impact assessment. The adoption was purely formal and the measure was not discussed

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