Select Committee on Environmental Audit First Report

The Global Assessment of the Fifth Environmental Action Programme

56. A "Global Assessment" of the Commission's Fifth Environmental Action Programme will be evaluated at Helsinki. The Commission's Environmental Action Programme (EAP) series started in 1973. The first programme ran from 1973-1976 and was wide ranging including a large number of measures designed to deal with already urgent pollution problems. The first EAP defined principles such as the Polluter Pays Principle and recognised that prevention was better than cure. The following three programmes continued these themes over periods of four years (second and third) and five years (fourth).

57. The fifth and present EAP "Towards Sustainability" was adopted in 1992 and runs until 2000. It was prepared in parallel to the UN Rio Conference and Agenda 21 and constituted the Commission's contribution to the debate on sustainable development. Consequently, the 5th EAP set longer term objectives and focussed on a more global approach than the first four programmes which had concentrated on pollution prevention and nuisance issues.

58. The initial programme was evaluated in 1995 and the resulting progress report approved by the Commission in 1996. This report[64] concluded that "The Fifth Programme identified most of the elements to make the process work. What is lacking is the political will to make them work. Equally lacking are a pragmatic, operational set of tools and the appropriate institutional arrangements at all levels of government to nurture the process and ensure its success... In the end, the most important task is to find the means to exert the pressures which will result in real progress and to develop a sense of urgency to move forward."

59. In November 1995 the European Environment Agency published an updated State of the Environment Report as its contribution to the review process.[65] This made it clear that, although the EU was making progress in reducing certain pressures on the environment, this was not enough to improve the general quality of the environment and even less to progress towards sustainability. The EEA advised that an accelerated EU environmental policy was required if the EU wanted to achieve its environmental objectives and targets for the year 2000.[66]

60. In the light of these reports, the Commission adopted a draft Decision on the review of the programme.[67] This was aimed at intensifying efforts in certain priority areas in order to give new impetus to moves towards sustainable economic and social development in the EU. Integration of the environment into other policy areas was identified as a priority especially in the: agriculture, energy, industry, tourism and transport sectors.

61. A Co-Decision text was finally agreed in conciliation on 29 June 1998.[68] The Co-Decision required the Commission to submit "a global assessment of the implementation of the Programme" to the European Parliament and the Council at the end of the 5th EAP. This assessment was required to give special attention to the need to update and revise objectives and priorities as well as considering those that will be necessary beyond the year 2000. The "Global Assessment" (as it is now known) was started in 1998 and the Commission aims to adopt it in time for the Helsinki Summit.

62. The Commission communication on the Global Assessment was planned for July 1999 but was delayed by the embargo on new initiatives following the Commission's resignation in May. An inter-service draft is available from the Commission. This concludes that "Practical progress towards sustainable development has been rather limited, mainly because there was no clear recognition of commitment from Member States and stakeholders and little ownership by other sectors of the Programme".[69]

63. The assessment acknowledges that the EU has made progress in environmental legislation but only modest successes in integration of the environment into other policy areas and is far from achieving its broader objective of sustainable development as reflected in the Amsterdam Treaty.[70] The assessment goes on to acknowledge that traditional environmental policy, which promotes better technology and stricter environmental controls, is insufficient in itself to reverse the negative effects of social and economic development and the resulting structural changes in society.[71] It concludes that the main challenges are linked to unsustainable patterns of consumption and production[72] and that there is a need to change the way in which we define economic, social and environmental objectives so that they become complementary and jointly contribute to sustainability.[73] This assessment, taken together with the State and Outlook report from the EEA,[74] reveals that the picture is not a happy one for the sustainable development of the EU.

64. Mr Meacher thought that the 5th EAP had been a "considerable achievement and had tried to embrace the concept of sustainable development."[75] Most witnesses agreed that the plan had been a positive step but had a number of deficiencies. English Nature told the Committee that they thought that "life would have been worse without it" but did not think that it had achieved enough because the "political will, the clout, the money and the legislation had not been behind it".[76] Other witnesses pointed out that the 5th EAP had been too ambitious in scope, covering all Community activities, and that the targets and timetables which it included had quickly dated, despite the 1995 review.[77]

65. The Committee looks forward to the publication of the Global Assessment of the 5th EAP which will contribute to our audit of developments at the EU level. The Government should seek to ensure that any learning points which emerge from this exercise are addressed.

64  COM (95) 624, Progress report from the Commission on the implementation of the European Community programme of policy and action in relation to the environment and sustainable development: Towards Sustainability (5th EAP), 10 January 1996. Back

65  Environment in the European Union (1995)-Report for the review of the Fifth Action Programme, EEA, 10 November 1995 Back

66  Second anniversary of EEA, EEA, Newsletter 6 December 1995  Back

67  24 January 1996 Back

68   OJ L 275 10 October 1998 Back

69  Assuring our future: What directions for future environment and sustainable development policy? The Global Assessment of the Fifth Environmental Action Programme, Inter-service draft, European Commission, 24 September 1999, p. 1, paragraph 1.1 Back

70  Ibid p. 21 paragraph 10.1 Back

71  Ev p 45 paragraph 22 Back

72  Assuring our future: What directions for future environment and sustainable development policy? The Global Assessment of the Fifth Environmental Action Programme, Inter-service draft, European Commission, 24 September 1999, p. 8, paragraph 5 Back

73  Ibid p 21 paragraph 10.1 Back

74  Environment in the European Union at the turn of the century, European Environment Agency, 24 June 1999 Back

75  Q154 Back

76  Q16 Back

77  Q72 Back

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Prepared 25 November 1999