The Directorate-General for Environment is the European Commission department responsible for EU policy on the environment. It aims to protect, preserve and improve the environment for present and future generations, proposing and implementing policies that ensure a high level of environmental protection and preserve the quality of life of EU citizens. It also makes sure that Member States apply EU environmental law correctly and represents the European Union in environmental matters in international negotiations.
What are Europe’s current major policy challenges in terms of the environment?
Despite the significant progress of recent decades, and despite the ambitious policies on climate and circular economy, many trends are still going in the wrong direction. Problems like rapid biodiversity loss, the unsustainable use of resources, and accelerating climate change are more threatening than ever before.
We need to address the systemic drivers behind environmental pressures, such as resource-intensive production and consumption patterns, increasing demand for transport and continuing urbanisation, to achieve the scale of change needed. The main challenge will be to ‘mainstream’ environmental policy and integrate environmental considerations into those areas which affect it the most – for example, agriculture, fisheries, industrial policy, energy, transport, research, trade and so on.
The European Green Deal proposed by the Commission in December 2019 is Europe’s answer not just to the growing climate and environmental challenges, but to the social challenges they bring as well. It is a growth strategy with justice and equity at its heart, pulling together all sectors of the EU economy for people, for prosperity and for planet.
Leaving aside climate, three elements of the Green Deal are particularly important for DG Environment. We will propose in 2020 a new EU Biodiversity Strategy to protect, restore and mainstream biodiversity. We want to present global targets to protect biodiversity, as well as EU commitments to address the main causes of biodiversity loss in the EU, underpinned by measurable objectives.
The new Circular Economy Action Plan will follow in early March 2020, accompanying the EU Industrial Strategy. The Plan will bring circularity into the mainstream, with a particular focus this time on construction, textiles, electronics and plastics. The aim is to transform these resource-intensive sectors into truly circular systems. The new Action Plan will underline the importance of good design, sustainability and durability. It will also give consumers reliable and verifiable information on products and services.
The third major environmental element of the Green Deal is a zero pollution ambition for a toxic-free environment, which will provide a set of measures to prevent and remedy pollution from all sources, including emissions and chemicals.
Are regulatory and fiscal tools sufficient today to reduce industrial polluting emissions?
The EU has the most comprehensive and advanced environmental legislation in the world. The regulatory framework is therefore in place. However, these laws need to be properly implemented and that is not always the case. One of my DG’s tasks is to ensure that Member States implement the laws to which they have agreed. In that context the Commission may launch we open infringement proceedings against Member States and even take them to Court to ensure the respect of EU law.
Existing policy instruments should lead to further reductions in industrial emissions, and decarbonisation of industry will be the main driver of reductions in industrial emissions. However, to be successful, environmental objectives must be integrated into other policy areas. Incorporating more efficient, clean technologies and processes within Europe’s industrial sectors is essential to ensure continued reductions in emissions of pollutants and improved environmental and climate performance.
The primary objectives and benefits of environmental taxes are to reduce pollution and resource use. They are also several secondary benefits: for example, such taxes contribute to a healthier society and hence lower health-related costs, they trigger eco-innovations that generate wealth and jobs, while the broad diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies support sustainable systems of production and consumption.
Taxing polluters has so far been mostly a national matter, but the Commission wants a fairer decision-making process and has proposed that environmental tax matters across the EU should be decided by a majority vote.
What reforms do you expect from the new Commissioner in order to comply with the Paris agreements?
The Commission will propose the first European ‘Climate Law’ by March 2020 to enshrine the 2050 climate neutrality objective in legislation.
By Summer 2020, the Commission will present a plan to increase the EU’s greenhouse gas emission reductions target for 2030 to at least 50% and towards 55% compared with 1990 levels in a responsible way. To deliver these additional greenhouse gas emissions reductions, the Commission will, by June 2021, review and propose to revise where necessary, all relevant climate-related policy instruments. This will comprise the Emissions Trading System, including a possible extension of European emissions trading to new sectors, Member State targets to reduce emissions in sectors outside the Emissions Trading System, and the regulation on land use, land use change and forestry. The Commission will propose to amend the Climate Law to update it accordingly.
Sustainability must also be mainstreamed across all EU policies, as we must also pay attention to the coherence and synergies between our different actions. We need to see that all sectors, including energy, transport, agriculture, contribute to the climate neutrality objective.
What will your role be in order to support the policy developed by the new commission?
My job as Director-General of DG Environment is to fully support Commissioner Sinkevičius in delivering on the European Green Deal by reducing emissions, protecting biodiversity, improving the health of our citizens and ensuring the sustainability of our economy. DG Environment will be doing the research, drafting proposals and negotiating with other Institutions and Member States. We will also be in close contact with Member States to make sure that legislation which is adopted is fully in line with what is required and is actually implemented on the ground.
Furthermore, it is my job to ensure that environmental concerns are taken into account in other policy areas such as climate, energy, agriculture, ocean, transport, research and trade. To this end, I am involved in policy proposals made by other services in the Commission.