HomeEuropeThe EU’s unique role in helping us to respond to environmental threats

The EU’s unique role in helping us to respond to environmental threats

EU flag and space for textThis post is by Nigel Haigh, director of the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) 1980- 98 and chair of Green Alliance 1989-98. He is author of the forthcoming book EU Environmental Policy – its journey to centre stage  (to be published in December by Routledge)

As the debate around an in/out EU referendum intensifies, I am sure others will point out that it is because of the EU that we now have low energy light bulbs and separate our biodegradable kitchen waste to reduce methane emissions from landfills. There are plenty of other examples,  mandatory air quality standards being particularly relevant just now.

My new book, however, focuses on something different. It shows how the EU has been able to adapt itself, take on new challenges and enable individual member states to achieve results which they could not have done on their own. And some of the legislation it has developed has been highly original.

A number of factors came together in the 80s and early 90s which moved environmental policy from the margins of the EU to the centre. A new treaty called the Single European Act, signed in 1987 to promote the completion of the ‘single market’, said that the environment had to be integrated into the EU’s other policies. This enabled the 1992 ‘Towards Sustainability’ action plan to identify five target sectors for attention:  industry, transport, agriculture, energy and tourism, and led eventually to the pursuit of sustainable development being written into the treaties.

A series of events stimulated action
But words in treaties and action programmes do not themselves move the uncommitted. It was the coincidence of a number of real world events that shifted the views of the public and politicians. In 1985, the discovery of a hole in the ozone layer helped to confirm the earlier hypothesis that it was being destroyed by chemicals used in everyday products like hairsprays and refrigerators. In the same year, climate change was placed on the political agenda by a scientific conference, with the result that the European Parliament immediately called for an EU policy. And, in 1986, the explosion at Chernobyl in the Ukraine sent radioactive dust across large parts of Europe, making the point more immediately than climate change that pollution knows no frontiers. The EU’s response was to set standards for radioactivity in foods and to help fund remedial work.

Policies that the EU developed to deal with climate change were first forged in response to these events, and eventually influenced the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol.

The EU as environmental policy innovator
The EU has been a major international force for good through policy innovation. In 1980, the EU placed a cap on CFC production, as a precautionary measure to protect the ozone layer. This had not been done before. When the 1985 ozone layer convention was being negotiated, there was a dispute between the EU and the ‘Toronto Group’ of countries (USA, Canada, Finland, Norway, Sweden) who wanted initially to ban CFCs in aerosols. The EU argued instead for a production cap, on the grounds that an aerosol ban would do nothing to curb the growing non-aerosol uses of CFCs. The EU won the argument and the Montreal Protocol of 1987 placed a cap on production, followed later by a worldwide ban with the result that the ozone layer is now beginning to recover.

The acid rain saga was rather different.  The European Commission at first proposed that each member state should reduce emissions of sulphur from power stations by the same amount. But, when it became clear that circumstances differed so much between member states that uniform reductions would never be agreed, the concept of ‘burden sharing’ evolved, under which different countries agreed different reductions. After much horse trading, differentiated reductions were agreed in the 1988 Large Combustion Plants Directive. It may sound a self-evident solution today, but it wasn’t at the time, and agreement would never have been reached without the machinery the EU provided for almost continuous discussion.

If the EU didn’t exist…
The analogy with climate change today is obvious. Had the EU lost the argument on the ozone layer and failed to agree a solution to acid rain, it would never have had the confidence to agree an EU wide cap on greenhouse gases that eventually led to the UN climate convention. The refinement of the Kyoto Protocol, under which different developed countries agreed different reductions, followed the precedent set in the EU for acid rain.

The institutions of the EU may sometimes be slow to respond to new threats but they have been innovative and have also adapted to environmental challenges the UK could never have tackled alone. If the EU didn’t exist, something like it would have to be invented, to co-ordinate action on transboundary threats to our quality of life.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.