EU sustainability plan put on the table

Long list of largely environmental objectives will need "sacrifice for major benefits"

The European Commission yesterday published its long-awaited draft for an EU sustainable development strategy, to be submitted to heads of state at next month's Gothenburg summit. Commission president Romano Prodi said the strategy would need "initial sacrifices" but would reap "major benefits in the longer run". The document has received a generally warm response.

As in a previous working paper (ENDS Daily 28 March), the strategy targets six areas where the threat to EU sustainability is the greatest; for two - an ageing population and poverty and social exclusion - the Commission says recent EU summits have already adopted measures. The final strategy therefore swings strongly to the environmental pillar of sustainability by focusing on the four other areas: climate change, public health, resource management and transport congestion and pollution.

To tackle them it proposes a series of "cross-cutting" principles: all policies should have sustainable development as their "core concern," with the "spillovers" of sectoral measures into other policy areas identified and taken into account; subsidies encouraging wasteful resource use should be abolished. Forthcoming major reviews of EU transport, agriculture and fishery policies will adopt the principles, it says.

Turning to the specific problem areas, the strategy "builds on but goes beyond" the sixth environmental action programme by proposing a large number of concrete objectives and targets. Officials admit that many have already been announced previously, but among the new ones are:

Cutting EU greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2020; adopting by 2004 an ambitious EU energy tax regime with "full internalisation of external costs" and indexing of minimum tax rates to inflation; raising transport biofuel consumption to 20% by 2020; introducing a system of "resource productivity measurement" by 2003, and "significantly" decoupling transport growth from economic growth by introducing transport charges which "reflect costs to society" by 2005.

Under the Commission's plan the strategy would be reviewed by EU leaders annually and at broader stakeholder forums every two years, on the basis of "synthesis reports" containing a small number of "headline indicators". A "round table" of 10 independent sustainability experts would help the Commission draw up the report.

"Sustainable development can only come about if people and firms make the right investment decisions," the Commission says. It is proposing more stakeholder consultation in policymaking and has "invited" all publicly quoted companies with at least 500 staff invited to publish "triple bottom line" sustainability reports.

For the Swedish presidency, which has made sustainability a pivotal issue during its tenure, environment minister Kjell Larsson welcomed the document as "a good start," but said EU leaders would have to be "more ambitious when it comes to the key issues."

Environmentalists', meanwhile, have been won over: Green MEP Alexander de Roo said it was "good initiative" which would "send the EU down a sustainable path," while for John Hontelez of the European Environmental Bureau it was "a real attempt to describe a long-term vision - much stronger than we expected".

Daniel Cloquet of European business association Unice was more circumspect, welcoming the document but reserving judgement until the "hows" of reaching the objectives had been worked out. A stronger role for the so-called Lisbon process to improve innovation and business competitiveness would be needed to generate the resources to implement the objectives, he said.

Follow Up:
European Commission secretariat general, tel: +32 2 299 1111, press release, sustainable development pages, Prodi speech, and the proposed strategy; EEB, tel: +32 2 289 1090, Unice, tel: +32 2 237 6511; Greens-EFA, and press release.

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