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Session 2001- 02
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European Standing Committee A Debates

Sixth Environmental Action Programme

European Standing Committee A

Wednesday 16 January 2002

[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Sixth Environmental Action Programme

[Relevant Document: European Union Document No. 5771/01, the Sixth Environmental Action Programme of the European Community (2001-2010).]

10.30 am

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): I agree with the Committee's view that the sixth community environmental action programme deals with a subject of major importance. I welcome the opportunity to discuss a document that will set out the framework for European Union policy on the environment for the next 10 years. It deals with some of the most pressing environmental issues facing this country at the beginning of the 21st century, such as climate change and the need for greater resource efficiency. Those wide problems equally face our European partners, and co-ordinated action will increase our effectiveness in dealing with them. Through the sixth environmental action programme, we are drawing up the shape that that action will take over the coming decade.

We supported the political agreement reached in Council on 7 June last year. That came before the Committee was able to convene for a second time to discuss the supplementary information that I provided in May. The political agreement that we reached reflected to a considerable extent the Government's negotiating objectives and was fully worthy of our support.

There are a number of reasons why the EU needs an environmental programme. Environmental problems do not respect national boundaries. Action at community level is best placed to deal with trans-boundary problems such as air and water pollution. Environmental problems are inter-linked, so a strategic, integrated approach is essential. Actions to deal with one issue will affect other areas. For example, improvements in resource efficiency will save resources, while reducing the waste that we produce and the energy that we consume. That, in turn, will contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The programme gives us the overarching perspective that we need to deal collectively with those interconnected issues.

The document is a general action programme, not a technical document. Accordingly, a feature of the programme is the flexibility that it allows for future policy making. The programme establishes concrete targets for action where current analysis is sufficient to enable action. The current text does what a general action programme should: it presents a strategic

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document with a sense of prioritisation, focuses on a key set of objectives, and allows appropriate flexibility for future policies to achieve the objectives.

The programme sets out its objectives under the four central themes identified in the global assessment of the fifth environment action programme. That gives the sixth programme a high degree of strategic focus. The four central areas are climate change, nature and biodiversity, environment and health and quality of life, and sustainable use of natural resources and the management of waste. Climate change is emphasised as

    ''an outstanding challenge of the next 10 years and beyond.''

The overall aim includes decoupling environmental pressures from economic growth. Those are priorities for the Government.

As highlighted in the explanatory memorandums and the regulatory impact assessment, the programme will not have a direct regulatory impact. It will provide a basis for future proposals from the Commission to meet its objectives. Let me emphasise that, although the sixth environmental action programme is about taking action at Community level, it should not simply lead to a flood of new proposals for legislation from the Commission.

There are, of course, a number of commitments and targets. Some are quantitative, where sufficient analysis has already been carried out. In other cases, targets are more qualitative. There is a commitment to set numerical targets later, when appropriate analysis has been completed—for example, on waste minimisation and in the thematic strategies. The means to achieve those targets will be developed against the programme's commitment to an improved approach to policy making.

To ensure that environmental policy is better made in future, there is a clear commitment to focus on the environmental outcomes to be achieved by employing the most effective and appropriate means available. That may entail a combination of instruments. Some of the programme's more complex ambitions—for example, promoting sustainable production and consumption patterns—clearly require a blend of measures, which may include market-based instruments and voluntary commitments.

The Commission will develop policy in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, considering the full range of available options. It will emphasise benefits and costs and evaluate any measure's likely impact on the environment. Environmental policies will be reviewed and updated in the light of experience, and the programme will ensure a better link between EU environmental policy and the Community research programme.

Among the measures that will flow from the programme will be seven thematic strategies, which will deal with particularly complex issues such as waste recycling and resource management, where much further analysis is needed, as well as a co-ordinated approach.

A key problem facing the environment in Europe is insufficient attention to implementation and enforcement across the Community once measures

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have been agreed. The programme will seek to address that. Overall, the common position amounts to a stretching but realistic programme that represents a substantial improvement on the original Commission proposal. I look forward to hearing Committee members' comments.

The Chairman: I invite hon. Members to put questions to the Minister until 11.30 am or until questions are exhausted. We will then move on to the debate.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): Can my right hon. Friend inform me about some general issues? Matters such as carbon dioxide emission are European and worldwide problems.

First, will my right hon. Friend comment not only on wind and solar energy, but on wave and tidal energy? Is that in the equation? Secondly, will he say something about genetically modified organisms? As he knows, there is a wide diversity of views on that issue. Will the framework address it? Thirdly, will he explain the approach that will be taken to major health problems? Will some, such as cancer, mental health and heart disease, be prioritised, as in this country?

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend has made three wide-ranging points.

On wave and tidal energy, I repeat that this is a framework document, not a technical document, and it does not specifically deal with that subject. It covers the key overarching objectives, perhaps the biggest of which is climate change. At Kyoto, the EU committed itself to reduce CO2 emissions, as measured in 1990, by 8 per cent. by 2010. A burden-sharing agreement was reached under the UK presidency in 1998, and we have made a commitment to reduce emissions by 12.5 per cent. The means by which those objectives are achieved are left to individual countries. They include wave and tidal energy and I am the first to accept that the potential in the United Kingdom is greater than we have yet tapped.

GMOs are probably the most contentious issue in my portfolio. The health issue and alleged environmental impact are covered by the framework document. A common position has been agreed with the European Parliament for revision of directive 92/20 with a new directive 2010/18, which comes into force on 17 October. It contains a range of new measures to tighten the regulation of GMOs. We shall pursue issues such as the experience of member states in implementing that directive, the question of political accountability, reduction of the polarisation of views in all member states, and, in particular, the vexed issue of the so-called--I choose my words delicately--informal moratorium on approvals, which came into force in 1998 following the action of six member states. The United Kingdom does not support that moratorium on the grounds that that is not the way to approach the issue and that approvals should be given when they are justified. However, the labelling and traceability provisions should be in place when we consider those approvals and should be one of the conditions for giving approval.

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The relationship between environment and health is close. Many health issues are affected by environmental issues--for example, landfill, hazardous waste and air pollution. One of the most alarming discoveries of recent research is that some air pollution is much more drastic for health--for example, particulates and to some extent nitrous oxide--than we had believed. The causes, which include transport emissions and some industrial emissions, must be addressed. All are covered, but there will undoubtedly be further technical proposals from the Commission.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): The statistics on page 50 of the communication are helpful. World population between 1950 and 1997 increased from 2.5 billion to 5.8 billion, and the number of mega-cities--cities with a population of more than 8 million--increased from two in 1950 to a staggering 25 in 1997. The number is probably greater now. Does the Minister agree that the greatest single problem facing the world is overpopulation and the growth of population? What do the documents say about population control?

Mr. Meacher: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the rapid rise in population is serious. The carrying capacity of the earth and its resources became an issue only during the last century, and it is an issue not just for the state of human civilisation, but possibly for human survival. The exponential increase in the population during the last century cannot continue indefinitely. The population at the beginning of the last century was 3 or 4 billion, but it has increased to 6 billion and is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. The human race has been present on earth for around quarter of a million years and the population in the course of recorded history was stable until the last century, so the change is dramatic. The document does not directly address overpopulation but seeks to deal with its consequences. It is not for a framework document for environmental action to deal with population, but I agree that we should deal not only with the symptoms, but the causes.

The issue extends beyond the European Union. The greatest increases in population are in developing countries; the population in developed countries is largely stable. Population is increasing rapidly in Africa in particular, and in south-east Asia and Latin America. I agree that we need international discussion to assist in dealing with that. Powerful religious scruples and inhibitions exist, especially on contraception, but there is increasing worldwide recognition that population increase cannot continue at the present rate and that family planning must be considered in some developing countries. Of course, that cannot be enforced and can be done only by voluntary agreement. The pressure on environmental resources and public services is so great that we cannot indefinitely ignore the problem.


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