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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Cohesion Policy Contribution to a more Resource Efficient, Greener and Competitive Economy

Figures and graphics available in PDF and WORD PROCESSED

Event: "Regions for Economic Change - Building Sustainable Growth"

Brussels, 20 May 2010

Ladies and Gentlemen

I'm delighted to see so many of you here today.

I'm sure there are many of you out there who like opera. And as I'm sure you appreciate, the best operas have a strong leitmotif…something that draws you in and holds the whole performance together.

I wouldn't dream of comparing the evolution of the European Union to an opera (comic, tragic, or any other kind), but I think you might agree with me that there has been a strong leitmotif running through our policies over the last 50 years.

It is the theme of cohesion.

Cohesion, as the word suggests, is a force that holds elements together. And cohesion policies have been used to do just that – cohesion describes the multitude of ways in which we try and smooth out the differences between our Member States, to make entry and life in a Union like this more equitable and possible.

The Cohesion policy is then perhaps some of the less visible innovations of our Union and maybe even the least understood. But despite appearing to be in the background, it is essential.

And this holds true for environment policy and cohesion as much as anywhere else.

Cohesion Policy and the Environment go hand in hand. Environmental integration in other EU policies has been present in the Treaty since the 1987 Single European Act. And since then we have achieved much.

As one of most relevant for environment, Cohesion Policy still contributes those "gap filling" investments to implement the environmental acquis, by co-financing air, water and waste infrastructure projects. It provided for environmental integration investments, for example in making energy and transport choices that are environmentally sustainable, and helping with climate change mitigation and adaptation. And last, but not least, cohesion operations have to comply and support environmental legislation - in particular related to environmental impact assessments (EIA and SEA) and nature legislation.

Cohesion and environment, then, are kindred spirits. They share the same philosophy and they complement each other.

Our highest level policies reflect this too. They have had built into them, the means and the spirit of cohesion. Europe 2020 strategy advocates a new development model for “smart, sustainable and inclusive growth”, where cohesion policy is uniquely placed to contribute to the delivery of the EU’s sustainable growth objectives.

And the new Lisbon Treaty has added achieving 'Territorial cohesion' as a new objective along with economic and social cohesion. This means that territorial and regional specificities will have to be taken into account to an even greater extent than they were before. It also means that environmental policies can benefit from being placed into a broader context; we can also achieve a greater coherence between sectoral policies and coordination between different levels of governance.

This will provide the opportunities to forge those regional partnerships that are such an important tool for improved governance and sustainability.

At the beginning I asked you to think of cohesion as a leitmotif running through our work. I hope you can see the environment as a major theme too! I believe that as we think and discuss beyond today and far into the future, we should make the link between our cohesion and environmental actions even stronger…someone once called it future-proofing.

So what are the challenges we are likely to face? And how can we future proof ourselves against them?

We know about some of the specific ones. And these will need to be addressed by close, cooperative and cross-cutting work, within the Commission and the other institutions and across the Member States and their regions.

I would like to set out some of these challenges.

The first is about the contribution of Cohesion Policy to a more resource efficient, greener and competitive economy. As you might know, resource efficiency is particularly close to my heart and it is one of my key priorities for my term as Environment Commissioner. Moving towards more resource-efficient products, services and processes will give that added competitive advantage to industry, irrespective of sector or region. The role of eco-innovation in achieving resource efficiency is evident and eco-innovation can be a national and regional driver for growth and jobs.

Two other important, but sadly too often neglected challenges, are biodiversity loss and the development of ecosystem services. Here we could do with some new strategic thinking – and action.

You would have to have been living under a rock not to have heard about the alarming rate of biodiversity loss. This is a startling problem and one that needs our attention now. We missed our 2010 target for halting it and we are working hard in the context of the international year in making sure we don't do it again.

Complementary to biodiversity, ecosystem services supply goods and services beneficial to the economy, but are typically areas where market failure exists and where public financing is needed to complement the regulatory framework. Services from both of these areas are the underlying basis for all social and economic activities, provide ample opportunity for employment (particularly in SMEs), and cultural activities, often in less-favoured regions. Developing this kind of 'green infrastructure' could lead to new partnerships of biodiversity and cohesion policy funding, particularly if banks and private investors can be convinced of the benefits of investing. With the imminent establishment of the Natura 2000 Network, hosting our most precious biodiversity assets and natural capital, we are now passing to the management and conservation of the network which will need more EU funds for the protection, conservation and monitoring of this Network. For all EU co-financed projects, irrespective of the sector, we should also think about introducing biodiversity proofing, together with the climate change proofing, in order to make them carbon neutral and greener.

We are also going to have to develop new ideas, which address the problems of urban areas and cities – where most Europeans live and work these days – and which give shape to the new territorial cohesion principles I mentioned earlier, which are fundamentally about promoting cooperation between regions. Cities are the places where environment and cohesion meet, not always happily I might add. There are still many unresolved issues across the EU, particularly in the areas of waste water, solid waste treatment and water efficiency. This is a less than virtuous cycle of problems, which will require the attention of all of us – at all levels.

Cooperation is a major weapon in our armoury. And we need to use it to support compliance with the environmental acquis, a difficulty that is shared by many Member States but particularly by the newest ones as they have to comply with their full obligations for the first time, or when their transitional periods end. The forthcoming Eco-innovation Action Plan and the review of the Environment Impact Assessment Directive are all areas where Cohesion policy will benefit from our pooling of expertise.

We should also not forget about new types of cooperation, made possible through Public and Private Partnerships (PPPs), and which we should use more in the future. Here, upcoming changes to the EU financial rules should give us more flexibility than we have now.

Among innovative financial instruments, I would recommend the Risk-Sharing Finance Facility. This is an instrument for funding research, set up between the EIB and the European Commission, which has brought very good results. In future, we should think about developing such an instrument to include regional and environment-linked concerns.

These are our major challenges, but they are not all of them. As I'm sharing a platform today, I do not have time to go into them all, but I should mention green public procurement, and the possibility of looking beyond GDP – where we could measure 'progress' by looking at social concerns and the use of environmental resources as eligibility criteria for Cohesion policy action. Some view this as one of the only ways in which we use Cohesion policy to drive the surge towards a resource efficient society.

Ladies and Gentlemen

As a fairly new Environment Commissioner, but with an earlier five-year stint as Research Commissioner already 'under my belt', I have been really encouraged by the attitude of my fellow Commissioners. They have all shown a real willingness to work together, to cooperate to get things done. I am pleased to see Commissioner Hahn and Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn here today. They will be my constant companions over the next few years, as will be Commissioners Hedegaard, Oettinger, Cioloş and others.

And this united Commission will work closely with the European Parliament, the EIB and the CoR and finally, but very importantly, the regions to make a truly sustainable cohesion policy.

This of course is more crucial than ever where our policies, like our Union and the rest of the world increasingly overlaps.

I started my speech talking about opera – I hope you liked my overture – and an overture it is, because we still have a long way to go to build the modern, sustainable growth we want for the future.

Thank you.

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