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Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Now is not the time to put the environment in the back seat

Special Standing Committee on European Affairs and Special Permanent Committee on Environmental Protection

Athens, 7 April 2011

My first year as European Commissioner for Environment, has been marked by the continuation of an unprecedented economic and social crisis. And Greece has felt this more keenly than most.

Some might say that the environment should take a backseat. I say that looking after the environment remains as necessary as ever, perhaps with different emphases, but just as important.

During this first year, the Commission published the EU 2020 Strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. Through this, we want to shape our policies for the next decade to ensure more sustainable growth.

And while we need growth, it has to be quality growth. In the 20th Century the world population grew four times, and economic output 40 times. We increased our fossil fuel use by 16 times, our fishing catches by 35, and our water use by 9.

This is clearly not sustainable. As Aristotle so accurately put it "there is a foolish corner in the brain of the wisest man". Our Century of fragility and over consumption is our foolish corner.

This is why we need a longer term vision, for 2050, which gives us a perspective for fundamentally changing the way we produce and consume. We must stop wasting resources before they run out. It's as simple as that.

We have made progress. The recent European State of the Environment Report shows that we are on track on issues such as water pollution or bathing water quality. Progress is less clear in terms of decoupling resource use and economic growth, water stress and air pollution. And we need to do more to protect our ecosystems and their biodiversity and to generate less waste.

The trick will be to make sure that job, growth and the environment are developed together. This is my goal in 2011 – a goal that is totally in synch with our Europe 2020 strategy.

We will have to work together – across institutions and Member States – to make workable policies. The "European Semester" will help align Member States with Europe 2020 and allow policy guidance and recommendations to be given to Member States before national budgets are finalised.

We aren't starting from scratch. We have a strong EU environmental acquis. What we need to do now is enhance the quality of our environment by embedding it into the EU's economic governance and policies. We will also have to make the existing rules more effective and complied with.

If I were then to sum up what my main priorities are for my mandate as Environment Commissioner, they would be:

  • Resource efficiency

  • Biodiversity

  • Better implementation of the existing EU environmental rules.

In January, the Commission adopted a Communication on resource efficiency, which will set the scene for different initiatives to be adopted in 2011 and 2012.

Resource efficiency is becoming an established policy for the entire Commission. Few had heard the expression a year ago, but we are placing it at the heart of the EU's socio-economic agenda to truly integrate environmental objectives into other policies. I can give you an example. Only last week the Commission adopted a White Paper on the future of transport in the EU with the title: for a competitive and resource efficient transport system, starting with our economic policy. And I know you know about efficient transport…transportation by shipping, a Greek speciality, is one of, if not THE cleanest ways of transporting goods over long distances.

My ambition is to make resource efficiency an established and broad-ranging policy for the entire EU. And I want this to be your ambition too. Why - because it can transform our economies and put them on a sustainable path - so that we can promote competitiveness, prosperity and quality of life without risking future ecological crises. It can also mean jobs – the green jobs that we hear so much about.

But we have to make sure that our policies are good enough and flexible enough to make this huge transformation.

First we will need to implement the existing legislation. In the area of waste management and recycling alone, which I know, are of special interest to Greece. This would take us a long way towards improved material resource efficiency, as well as helping the climate and creating jobs.

This will remain a priority for the coming years for the Commission. The implementation of the Waste Framework Directive and the recast of the WEEE Directive are important and will help us meet our objectives. More needs to be done on waste prevention and in reducing land filling. The solution lies not only in legislation and enforcement, but in making markets for secondary raw materials work properly and making waste too valuable to waste. For example, did you know that 40 mobile phones contain about one gram of gold. You would have to move and treat on average one tonne of ore, often using toxic substances such as cyanide, to get the same amount from primary extraction

Second, we will need to steer the market towards resource efficiency by using market-based instruments. Prices must reflect real economic and environmental costs. Shifting the burden of taxation from labour towards resource use or environmental impacts would push our economies in the right direction. And we cannot avoid looking at how market-based instruments, in particular taxation, can be used more effectively...

Third, we need to make better use of good but under-used existing instruments. We must develop eco-design, certification schemes, eco-labels and Environmental management auditing schemes further so that they can make a difference. Here we will work closely with business and with national initiatives. The Sustainable Consumption and Production instruments, which have been delivering good results, need to be made stronger, for instance by extending the scope of the Ecodesign directive to all manufactured products with significant environmental impact.

Fourth, we will need a better approach to achieving resource efficiency through non-environment policies. Europe 2020 will help there and I have already mentioned the White Paper on Transport as an example.

I will also be looking to your support for our work in 'greening' the next EU multiannual financial framework post 2013. Because we can't green anything without national parliaments behind us. You will have a vote. And we want to make sure it's cast in a sustainable direction…

Finally, we need to design policies that help us preserve our most valuable natural assets – like water, air or ecosystems - where market forces will not deliver or not deliver quickly enough.

This brings me to my second priority, biodiversity.

I was highly satisfied with the outcomes of the meeting in Nagoya last October on Biodiversity. But there is more work to be done. And the successful adoption of the 'Nagoya Package' will be a real challenge for us all. We need to follow up on those commitments.

The most challenging Nagoya commitment to me is on resource mobilisation. All of us - be it at national or at EU level - need to work hard to be able to significantly step up current levels of biodiversity financing internationally. I am working with my fellow Commissioners to ensure that the future EU budget sufficiently reflects that biodiversity has become a much more important political issue. One of the central arguments I am making is that investments into healthy ecosystems are important not only for conserving nature, but also for supporting the livelihoods of those that depend on healthy ecosystems; particularly fishermen or the rural poor. I feel strongly here that prevention is better than cure.

And I would prefer to invest now in maintaining biodiverse and healthy ecosystems, rather than pay for keeping environmental refugees at bay.

My third priority is the implementation of EU environmental laws.

Implementing environmental legislation can be problematic. As you know.

Our position is simple. We want to be "strictly helpful". This means trying to understand specific situations in Member States and helping where we can to solve their problems. Despite what some think 'implementation' isn't a desire to punish or fine. I see it as helping Member States implement the legislation they have signed up to.

That is why new legislation must be 'implementation-friendly' enough for all who are going to have to use it. We provide a lot of guidance during the transposition period just for this purpose.

Of course we have to check that legislation is actually implemented. We have worked on a 'cooperative approach' and our pilot system actually solves 50% of the issues before infringement. But for situations where infringement is necessary, we must be "helpfully strict" - we have new powers under Lisbon on non-transposition cases, which allow fines at the first court ruling.

I would say that we are trying for a holistic approach to implementation - using EU co-financing to help Member States fulfil their obligations (for example with waste-water treatment infrastructure). And this is something we must consider in the budget debates for the next financial period and in the future reform of Cohesion Policy.

We are also developing ideas for our implementation and a communication will be adopted in autumn this year to that effect. This will focus on improving the current governance for implementation, including reinforced inspections system and a better knowledge base for implementation.

Ladies and Gentlemen

I believe this is a new era for environmental policy.

But we have to be clear and systemic in the way that we pursue our aims. And we need to make sure our policies are sophisticated enough to match the complexity of our environment and our society.

And perhaps most importantly of all, we have to make sure that the transformation of the economy towards growth is based on a pattern of resources use that our planet can sustain.

It is a tall order, but a necessary one – I am sure that I can rely on your support and cooperation.

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