Select Committee on European Scrutiny First Report


COM(01) 264

Commission Communication: "A sustainable Europe for a better world: A European Union strategy for sustainable development".

Legal base:
Document originated: 15 May 2001
Forwarded to the Council: 18 May 2001
Deposited in Parliament: 20 June 2001
Department: Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Basis of consideration: EM of 20 June 2001
Previous Committee Report: None
Discussed in Council: 15-16 June 2001
Committee's assessment: Politically important
Committee's decision: Cleared


42.1  The European Council at Helsinki in December 1999 invited the Commission to prepare a long-term strategy for economically, socially and ecologically sustainable development, and, in response to that request, the Commission has produced the current document, which it suggests should form part of the Community's preparations for the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development.

The current document

42.2  The Commission suggests that sustainable development offers the long-term vision of a more prosperous but safer society, which will require economic growth to support social progress and respect the environment. However, it also recognises the need to bridge the gap between "this ambitious vision" and practical political action. It therefore proposes that any strategy should focus on a small number of problems threatening severe or irreversible damage to European society, which it sees as including global warming; antibiotic-resistant strains of some diseases and the potentially longer-term effects of many hazardous chemicals; poverty; an ageing population; loss of biodiversity; and transport congestion and regional imbalances. It further suggests that, since many of these problems are difficult to remedy within a short time-frame, urgent action is needed, that the difficult trade-offs between conflicting interests make strong political leadership essential, and that, since action in one area can often hinder progress in another, policy making must involve action at all levels. Against this background, it proposes a Community strategy in three parts.

42.3  In the first of these, the Commission seeks to identify a set of cross-cutting proposals to improve policy effectiveness and bring about sustainable development. These involve:

  • all policies having sustainable development as their core concern, with the forthcoming reviews in areas such as agriculture and fisheries looking at how they can contribute more positively to sustainable development;

  • the need for better information on the potential economic, environmental and social benefits and costs of action, or lack of action, both inside and outside the Community;

  • the desirability of giving priority to market-based approaches, including the removal of subsidies which encourage the wasteful use of natural resources;

  • the need to ensure that legislation does not hamper innovation, and that both public procurement and private sector initiatives encourage the use of environmentally-friendly products;

  • the importance of better communication, particularly with consumers, whose interests "are too often overlooked", so as to foster a sense of responsibility among both individuals and business; and

  • the need for the Community's policies — both internal and external — actively to support efforts by other countries.

42.4  The second major theme of the Communication is the need to set long-term objectives and targets, identifying priorities for action. The Commission observes that, of the priority areas identified in paragraph 42.2 above, poverty and the problems of an ageing society have already been considered separately by recent European Councils. It therefore concentrates on the remaining four areas.

42.5  On climate change, it notes that Kyoto is but a first step, and that the Community should thereafter aim to continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, whilst insisting that the other major industrialised countries comply with their Kyoto targets. It also points to the need for the Community to adopt an energy products tax directive by 2002, followed by more ambitious environmental targets for energy taxation; for the phasing out of subsidies to fossil fuel production and consumption by 2010; for an increase in the use of alternative fuels (including biofuels) by cars; for clear action to reduce energy demand; and for more support being given to the research, development and dissemination of technology.

42.6  On public health, the Commission identifies the need to make safety and quality the objective of all players in the food chain; the need to ensure that chemicals are produced only in ways which do not pose significant threats to human health and the environment; and the need to tackle issues related to outbreaks of infectious diseases and resistance to antibiotics. Among the specific actions envisaged is the reorientation of support under the Common Agricultural Policy to reward high-quality products and practices rather than quantity, the development of a comprehensive strategy to promote health and safety at work, and the creation of a European capacity to monitor and control outbreaks of infectious diseases.

42.7  On the management of natural resources, the Commission stresses the need to break the links between economic growth, the use of resources and the generation of waste; to protect and restore habitats and natural systems and halt the loss of biodiversity; and to improve fisheries management to reverse the decline in stocks and ensure sustainable and healthy marine ecosystems. Apart from the actions arising in the course of the forthcoming reviews of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy, it highlights the need to develop, in cooperation with business, an integrated product policy to reduce resource use and the environmental impacts of waste.

42.8  On improvements to the transport system and land-use management, it lays emphasis on decoupling transport growth from growth in gross domestic product in order to reduce congestion; on bringing about a shift in use from road to rail, water and public passenger transport; and on promoting more balanced regional development. In particular, it says that it will propose a framework for charges to ensure that prices for different transport modes, including air, reflect their costs to society; promote further technological progress enabling the introduction of road pricing; and give priority in infrastructure investment to public transport, railways, inland waterways and short sea shipping. Other steps envisaged include encouraging local initiatives to tackle the problems faced by urban areas, and producing recommendations for integrated development strategies for urban and environmentally-sensitive areas.

42.9  The third section of the Communication looks at ways of implementing the strategy and reviewing progress. The Commission notes that the European Council decided in Stockholm that all dimensions of sustainable development should be reviewed at its annual spring meeting, and it says that it will propose a small number of headline performance indicators to the meeting in Barcelona in spring 2002. The Commission itself considers that this should be periodically complemented by a more comprehensive review at the beginning of each Commission's term of office: and it believes that the process of integrating environmental concerns into sectoral policies, launched by the European Council at Cardiff, must continue, with particular emphasis on the need to ensure that proposals in individual sectors have greater regard to the linkages with other areas.

The Government's view

42.10  In his Explanatory Memorandum of 20 June 2001, the Minister for the Environment (Mr Michael Meacher) points out that, although the Communication sets out proposals for a strategy containing possible policy approaches, it does not have direct regulatory impact. That said, the Government agrees with the priority areas which the Commission has identified, and can also accept many of the specific objectives and measures put forward (though it says that some - including those on climate change, energy, chemicals, transport and urban development — would present difficulties for the UK and other Member States if they were adopted). The Minister also says that the Government welcomes the Commission's intention to encourage a more coherent and integrated approach to Community policy-making, as well as greater openness.


42.11  As the Minister points out, this document — which we understand was given a broad welcome at the Gothenburg European Council on 15-16 June — does not have a direct regulatory impact. Nevertheless, it deals with a wide-ranging and important subject, and, in clearing it, we think it right to draw it to the attention of the House.

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