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European Environmental Policy

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Environmental policy is one of the most important and far-reaching areas of EU legislation. The EU is the leading authority in this area with up to 80% of UK legislation on environmental affairs estimated to come from the EU. However, critics of EU environmental policy question the efficiency of some measures, arguing that the cost of complying with these regulations leaves European business uncompetitive, especially in the face of increased competition from countries such as China and India, which do not have such strict environmental rules.


Environmental policy is a relatively recent EU policy area. Environmental protection was not mentioned in the Treaty of Rome (1958), and it was not until 1972 that the first of a series of European Environmental Action Plans (EAP) was launched. The Single European Act (1986) marked the beginning of a more prominent role for environmental protection in EU policy-making, introducing the principal that environmental protection should be considered in all new Community legislation. EU environmental policy was substantially expanded by the Treaties of Maastricht (1992) and Amsterdam (1997), which made sustainable development one of the EU’s central objectives. Sustainable development also forms a key part of the Europe 2020 Strategy, which underpins all EU policy regarding the single market. The Lisbon Treaty (2007) reiterated the objective of sustainable development and, in 2010, the EU renewed a number of environmental Directives to ensure they comply with the Lisbon Treaty.

What does EU environmental policy do?

The EU has passed legislation aimed at improving the quality of water, tackling air and noise pollution, assuring the safety of chemicals, setting standards for waste disposal and protecting the EU’s native wildlife and plants.The current EAP, which runs until 2020, has three key objectives: to enhance the EU’s natural capital, to improve resource efficiency and to protect EU citizens from environment-related health risks.

The EU has also taken a leading role in global environmental negotiations, especially the signing of the Kyoto Protocol. At the 1997 UN Conference on Climate Change in Kyoto, Japan, the EU committed its members to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 8% by 2012, compared to levels in 1990. The 2008 EU Climate Change package established the ’20:20:20 targets’ for 20% of energy to come from renewable sources and committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 20% by 2020.

EU measures to meet such commitments include the Emisions Trading System (ETS), created in 2002. This system limits the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) firms can produce in 6 key industries: energy, steel, cement, glass, brick-making, and paper/cardboard production. The 2008 EU Climate Change package added aircraft emissions to the ETS from 2012. The EU also supports reducing CO2 emissions through Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) to bury emissions so they don’t enter the atmosphere. Finally, in 2008 the EU reasserted a commitment to reduce the amount of CO2 emitted from new cars and to fine manufacturers for each gram of CO2 they produce over the target (€20 in 2012, €95 in 2015). In 2009, the European Court of Justice ruled that EU states can set their own limits on CO2 emissions (the EU Commission can’t enforce common quotas). National targets vary according to the relative wealth of member states and progress on reaching targets is reported to the EU monitoring mechanism on an annual basis. Poland, Estonia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania all oppose imposing EU-wide CO2 quotas.

The EU’s political leaders have agreed that 20% of the EU’s energy should come from renewable sources by 2020, for example 10% of road fuel is to be composed of biofuel by 2020. However, in the UK, the 2008 Gallaher report criticised this suggesting that the increased use of biofuels might be contributing to rises in global food prices. The Commission launched an investigation into this link between biofuels and rising prices in April 2008. They have since proposed that biofuels from crops should be limited to 5% of this target. Controversially, the EU’s targets are legally binding and theoretically enforceable in the ECJ (in 2007 the Commission proposed that environmental ‘crimes’ be punished by equal penalties across the EU). The EU took part in the 2014 UN Climate Change Summit in Lima, where an agreement was reached on how countries should deal with climate change. The text provides a framework for a major environment agreement that is to be negotiated at a summit in Paris later this year.

Facts and Figures

  • The EU produces around 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions and creates over two billion tonnes of rubbish a year.
  • The EU endorsed energy efficient light bulbs by banning 100w incandescent light bulbs in 2009.
  • The cost of compliance with EU environmental legislation for the ten new member states has been estimated at €100 billion. EU funding only covers 4% of this sum.
  • 9 of the 28 EU member states are likely to meet their 2020 national targets for renewable energy capacity; however in 2010, some countries, including Italy, Belgium and Bulgaria are not on course to meet their targets.



  • The threat to the environment is global and should be tackled on an international scale – the EU plays an important role in setting this agenda.
  • The EU’s commitment to environmental protection encourages other countries to adopt similar measures.
  • Environmental policy is one area where there is a great deal of public support for action at a Europe-wide level.


  • The cost of EU environmental regulation can undermine the competitiveness of EU businesses.
  • The amount of greenhouse gas emissions that firms are allowed to produce under the ETS has been set too high, so firms have little incentive to cut their emissions to meet the EU’s wider targets.


Even the darkest sceptic has to admit that when it comes to environment policy it makes sense for states to cooperate and do things in common.” – Dr Caroline Jackson MEP, 2003.

Nobody has the foggiest idea how the renewables target will be met.” – Ernest-Antoine Seillière, Head of Business Europe, March 2007.

Technical Terms

Transparency: the openness of companies’ business and accounting procedures.

Sustainable development: development that meets the needs of the present population without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Emissions Trading System: caps emissions of carbon dioxide by allowing firms that exceed their emissions limits to buy extra allowance from firms whose emissions are under target levels.

Europe 2020 strategy: underpins all EU policy regarding the Single Market. It particularly aims to create jobs and an inclusive society.

External Links

Proposal for a new EU Environment Action Programme to 2020


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