The EU must get greener

As the EU economy slows, concerns have been growing that environmental issues will start to slip down the political agenda. This is not new. Such concerns re-emerge each time the spectre of economic recession rears its ugly head.
There are good reasons to be worried. Governments across Europe are becoming twitchy about any measure that would increase pressure on households; they know they are facing growing public discontent over the rising costs of living.
In the past two years, as climate change gained ground as a top political issue, consumers have become increasingly interested in buying greener products and reducing their carbon footprint. But oil prices at more than $120 (€77) a barrel are sending petrol, gas and electricity prices through the roof. At the same time, sharp rises in the cost of food are making consumers more price-focused and less willing to pay a premium for more environmentally friendly products. The UK public’s concern over environmental matters has declined sharply since last year, polling agency Ipsos Mori has found.
The industry sector is also under pressure as manufacturing costs keep rising with oil prices. Companies will be reluctant to accept policy measures that could add to the strain.
But is this really the end of the good times for environmental policies? It seems unlikely. Among governments there is a stronger conviction than ever that these policies are not part of the problem but part of the solution.
In January the European commission proposed a package of measures on climate and energy intended to help reduce Europe’s dependency on oil and gas. Climate change will continue to dominate discussions in the EU council of ministers and European parliament in the second half of this year.
It might become harder to sell these measures to European citizens and industry if the current economic climate persists. Some governments will be tempted to put off these issues until the crisis passes. But there is also strong determination to reach an agreement on this package by the end of 2009.
This month the commission is expected to unveil another package of environmental measures, aimed at promoting more sustainable consumption and production patterns: it will be interesting to see how it is received.
The commission wants to expand the EU’s eco-design directive for energy-using products to other goods. It also wants to revise rules on green public procurement, and the European eco-management (Emas) and product eco-label schemes.
It might not feel like the right time to call for lifestyle changes. However, the commission insists it is not seeking to dramatically change the way our economy functions, but simply to create better incentives to make it greener. A more resource-efficient economy will help Europe ride out this turbulent time, it says. If high oil and food prices are here to stay, as some commentators argue, greening the economy might be Europe’s best chance of securing its future prosperity.
European commission figures show that material intensity in the EU is twice as high as it is in Japan. In other words, we use many more materials than we need to manufacture products.
“We are on track towards lowering emissions. But we are still a long way short of developing a truly resource-efficient economy,” EU environment commissioner Stavros Dimas told MEPs in May. Moving closer to that goal will be one of the commission’s key environmental priorities next year.
François Le Goff, reporter

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