Jul 17th 2008

Europe needs to change its whole approach to sustainability

by Tony Juniper

Tony Juniper is Executive Director of Friends of the Earth in England, Wales and Northern Ireland

The EU's preoccupation with its global competitiveness is more than cancelling out its measures to protect the environment, says Friends of the Earth's Tony Juniper. He calls for a radical reassessment of sustainability policies in Europe.

Europe's greens have mixed feelings about the EU, and have had for more than two decades. Some greens are horrified by its consumerist culture and growth-obsessed single market. Others are impressed by its efforts to safeguard the environment. Both are right, for the European Union has many layers and operates on many fronts. Its policies simultaneously provoke very different outcomes depending on which part of the world we're talking about. And when it comes to sustainability, there are so many varied aspects to consider.

Sustainability, it is generally agreed, involves the integration of environmental, economic and social priorities. This must reconcile economic development to progress with protecting the ecosystem on which human welfare ultimately depends. In other words, sustainability is a process that improves human welfare but limits environmental change to levels that our societies can cope with.

The EU's most obvious contribution to sustainability is all the environmental protection legislation it has racked up over many years through agreements between EU countries. In some member states, the vast majority of environmental rules and laws are directly down to EU directives, with only a small proportion derived from purely national action. In the UK, the proportion that comes from Europe is about 85%.

The issues affected by EU-level environmental legislation are very wide, and range from the protection of natural habitats, to energy efficiency standards and the regulation of chemicals. Some of the environmental standards set by Europe have a global influence. Chemicals companies in Asia and North America have to take account of EU rules to gain access to EU markets.

Pulling in the opposite direction is the unsustainable use of energy and resources needed to reinforce Europe's single market. Policies that directly impact on the environment include the EU's backing for roads, ports and other infrastructures designed to promote ever greater economic integration. These are often carbon-intensive projects that many argue are fundamentally unsustainable.

Another major area that affects the state of the environment is agriculture. Over several decades, the EU's Common Agricultural Policy has caused profound changes to the environment, to wildlife populations and to the appearance of rural areas, and it has impinged on the lives of millions of country dwellers. The quest for efficiency, competitiveness and cheap food has transformed the farming economies of almost every corner of the EU, and while some modest resources have been diverted towards the protection of various aspects of the rural environment, the bulk of the EU's farm budget has been ploughed into production subsidies. These have famously resulted in a whole host of unwanted side-effects, ranging from butter mountains and milk lakes to the socially damaging practice of "dumping" surpluses in developing countries. Subsidies have wrecked the economics of farming the world over, and all these consequences make it hard to see the overall effect of EU farm policy as in any way "sustainable".

During the 1980s and 1990s, sustainability had a high profile in EU agricultural policy, and it remains a huge challenge. But now, the sustainability issue is being linked to dealing with climate change. EU member states and their leaders are wrestling with the implications of the scientists' latest predictions. The stated aim of the European Union is to take such action that will keep the increase in the average global temperature to below 2 degrees centigrade. If the EU and the rest of the world really wants to realise this ambition, then large-scale cuts in emissions are urgently needed.

If we are to stand a reasonable chance of stabilising warming at this level, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, industrialised countries will have to reduce CO2 emissions by between 25% and 40% by 2020. The EU is presently committed to a mere 20% cut, and the policies needed to implement even this are not yet in place. The EU must get these going, and commit to at least a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Europe by 2020, and 90% by 2050. Right across Europe, Friends of the Earth groups are asking their governments to introduce legally binding annual cuts in emissions, and are pressing the European Union to reach agreement requiring member states to cut emissions year-on-year. By making each national government accountable within its term in office, cuts are much more likely to be made.

If the EU goes as far as some of its leaders are trying to push it, it could truly become a global leader on climate change. But countering this is the determined automobile lobby that is now campaigning against tougher standards on vehicle emissions. At the same time, a number of some member states are building new coal-fired power stations, and we are all seeing a rapid expansion of civil aviation right across the EU. So at the moment it doesn't look terribly likely that European countries will achieve what is needed.

Why are Europe's leaders talking a good talk about the environment and sustainability, but making such slow progress, and even going in the wrong direction? Some may talk of the need for a low carbon, resource-efficient economy, but many in national ministries and the European Commission are trying to stimulate competitiveness and to expand economic growth. Both are policy aims that could be made compatible with a more sustainable economy, but the manner in which they are being pursued at the moment makes that unlikely. EU trade ministers have been negotiating to further liberalise international trade, notably through the launch of the Global Europe trade policy adopted by the European Council in 2006. This centres on creating a new generation of bi-lateral free trade agreements that will give European corporations access to the markets and natural resources of developing countries. It has also led to pressure on countries to limit environmental and sustainability policies lest they be deemed trade barriers. The lesson yet to be learned here is that our sustainability and economic growth policy agendas must be made coherent and not contradictory.

Some African countries have already been pushed into signing-up to interim deals that will accelerate environmental degradation, while also undermining their infant industries and the livelihoods of small-scale farmers. Inside the EU, the Global Europe policy wants to ensure that new Europe-wide environmental, social and labour standards do not undermine European corporations' global competitiveness. The influence of corporate lobbyists and industry associations has done much to ensure that international competitiveness has now become an overriding EU policy priority, even though it generally does little to accommodate sustainability concepts.

Even where industry is responding to climate change legislation, the responses being advocated by most industry bodies bring serious sustainability challenges of their own. Recent calls for expanded biofuel production has been a case in point. The EU currently plans for 10% of all transport fuel to be made up of biofuels by 2010. But a growing number of academic experts, institutions and non-governmental organisations are concerned that biofuels may do more harm to the climate than good. Recent studies have shown that the carbon savings from biofuels are often negligible or even negative, and that the expansion of biofuel production is leading to rainforest destruction, rising food prices and human rights violations.

To address the environmental challenges of the 21st century, Europe needs to change its approach. In the decades ahead, competitiveness will be shaped by the efficient use of energy and the early adoption of cutting edge sustainable technologies. That is where the markets and industries of the future will succeed.

There is no immediate prospect of the EU's simultaneously achieving its environmental, economic and social goals. European corporations are among the largest and most influential in the world, and Europe's share of greenhouse gas emissions and its consumption of natural resources are far outside any reasonable calculation of sustainability. Despite some useful environmental laws, Europe is thus not yet in any position to claim leadership in the fight against climate change.

This article was provided by EUROPE'S WORLD.

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