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European Commission

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

‘Environmental priorities’

Hearing with the Committee for European Affairs and the Committee for Sustainable Development (Assemblée Nationale)

Paris, 3 April 2013

Dear Ms Auroi,

Dear Mr Chanteguet,

Honourable Members,

Thank you for inviting me. I am particularly pleased to be here today because national parliaments have an essential role in shaping European policies and making sure that they can be implemented at national level. Being in daily contact with your constituencies and local situations, you can ensure that the sense of realism and feasibility are kept high in environmental policy-making.

As national legislators, you can also put environmental considerations at the centre of your decision-making in all policy areas. And I believe that it is essential to do so because environment policy and economic growth can and should go hand‑in‑hand. In fact, I believe that green growth is the only way for us to exit the economic crisis in the long term. Developing a new economy based on a more efficient use of our natural resources will create jobs, support competitiveness and cut costs, while preserving our health and our environment.

Let me give you an example. In France, it is estimated that for the recycling and waste management sector, full implementation of the existing acquis could already create around 50,000 jobs at a relatively low cost. Eliminating landfill and limiting incineration and energy recovery to non-recyclable waste could increase that to 70,000 jobs.

In these difficult times for our economy, we must make sure that we collect public revenues in a way that supports durable growth. This is why a shift from taxing employment to taxing pollution and resource use makes complete sense. There is a high potential for that shift in France, as France ranks second last among EU Member States as regards its share of environmental taxation.

I therefore welcome France's commitment to green growth with the positive outcomes of the environmental conference last September. I am also looking forward to seeing the proposals of the recently created committee on environmental taxation. And, the creation of a circular economy institute is also a step in the right direction.

When I took up office in 2010, I set three priorities for my mandate: resource efficiency, biodiversity and implementation of existing legislation. Why did I pick these at a time where an economic and financial crisis was unfolding? Because we cannot tackle one crisis while ignoring the others, namely the environmental and climate challenges.

Three years on, I am still convinced that these priorities were the right ones and remain as relevant as ever. I am also pleased to report that we have progressed in all three areas.

  1. Let me tell you a little about what we have achieved so far. In 2011, we put forward the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, which sets out an agenda to make Europe's economy more sustainable by 2050. The objective is to use our natural resources in a more efficient way, saving money but also building a more resilient economy, with less vulnerability to the price fluctuations.

  2. We also put forward the EU Biodiversity Strategy in order to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU by 2020. In France, you have a particularly rich and diverse natural heritage, and investing in protecting it, will deliver benefits for the future, including economic benefits: think of rural development, tourism, and also a more sustainable and competitive agriculture.

  3. Finally, we presented proposals on improving the delivery of benefits from EU environment measures. The role here is to underline the benefits flowing from the correct implementation of environment law and to show how preventing damage to the environment generally costs far less than the cost of repairing the damage later.

Building on these key pillars, last November we adopted a proposal for a new Environment Action Programme. This seven year programme will provide the general framework for environmental policy-making until 2020, at EU and Member States level. Among its objectives are the following:

  1. To protect, conserve and enhance our natural heritage, on which so much economic activity depends. Besides implementing our 2020 Biodiversity Strategy, we have identified areas where there is room for improvement, including forest policy and we have identified some gaps that need to be filled such as for land use and soil. I believe that France and the Commission share the objective that we should achieve a better use of our finite land resources, especially fertile soils. And I am ready to engage with the French authorities to address their concerns with the proposal for a soil directive so that France can join the many Member States who support that proposal and want to see the directive adopted and enter into force.

  2. The new Action Programme will also put in place the right conditions for a single market for resource efficient, low‑carbon growth which should be at the core of the green economy we want to create. And it will tackle environment-related challenges to health, making sure we are prepared for new and emerging risks. Here the focus is on updating legislation, for example, on air quality and addressing concerns linked to chemicals and nano‑materials.

  3. We believe that we can deal with these challenges by focusing on four key elements: better implementation of legislation; better information by improving the scientific evidence base; more investments for environment, and full integration of environment into other policies.

Discussions on this new Action Programme are already underway in the European Parliament and the Council. My main preoccupation now is to ensure that the final text retains focused and sufficiently ambitious commitments to bring about tangible improvements in the state of the environment.

In late 2012, we also produced a strategy for water - the Water Blueprint. Its objective to help ensure that a sufficient quantity of good quality water is available to meet the needs of our citizens, the economy and the environment throughout the EU. The Water Blueprint outlines actions on better implementation of the current water legislation, more effective integration of water policy objectives into other policies as well as filling some gaps, in particular regarding water quantity and efficiency.

This year and next will see four key environmental initiatives.

  1. In fact, we have already adopted a Communication titled “A decent life for all: Ending poverty and giving the world a sustainable future.” Building on the outcome of last year’s Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. It proposes a single, coherent framework to couple sustainable development with efforts to end poverty.

  2. Second, will be a review of our air policies. In Europe, each year, 400,000 people die prematurely because of air pollution. In France, this figure is 40,000 premature deaths per year. This situation needs to change. One should not forget that air pollution also affects businesses and public budgets due to lost working days as well as the cost of health care on pollution-related diseases. Despite major improvements, exceeding air quality standards continues to be widespread and we need to address this. In this respect, I welcome the emergency approach to air quality announced by the French government in February.

  3. Thirdly, we will look at the issue of shale gas. It is vital that environmental risks in this field are identified, understood and properly managed. We need to put in place an appropriate framework to secure public confidence and provide clarity for market operators who want to explore and produce shale gas, so that the economic potential of this resource is not needlessly compromised.

  4. Finally, preparations are underway for a comprehensive package on waste in 2014.

In the coming months, we will also present a number of other initiatives that are important to deliver on our objectives:

  1. In the area of waste, we recently put forward a Green Paper on Plastic Waste to launch a discussion on how to make plastic products more sustainable. Following on from this, we are working on a proposal on reducing the use of plastic bags. Better inspections and controls of waste shipments are also on our agenda.

  2. Later this year we will also look more broadly at the current EU approach to environmental inspections and surveillance to see if it can deliver better environmental outcomes and facilitate a more level playing-field between Member States and businesses.

We are also working on a number of follow-up actions to the Resource Efficiency Roadmap, namely:

  1. improving the resource efficiency of the food chain and of the building sector which should also improve the competitiveness of these sectors and bring financial benefits to both business and consumers.

  2. the sustainability of phosphorus use, which is key for preventing the pollution it causes and for ensuring the security of its supply;

  3. protecting the EU's biodiversity from invasive alien species as well as promoting Green Infrastructure in a consistent way – in particular in the context of EU-funded investments;

  4. and in the area of chemicals, a revised strategy on Endocrine Disruptors where we will develop criteria for the identification of endocrine disruptors (rather than immediately banning substances). And when we have evidence that a substance is an endocrine disruptor, we will use provisions in existing legislation to take the appropriate actions whilst taking account of the potential impacts.

Apart from the Environment Action Programme, a number of other initiatives are under discussion by the European Parliament and Council.

We had a good exchange of views at the March Environment Council under the Irish Presidency on the proposal to revise the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive. This included implementing the simplification aspects of the proposal and the scope that impact assessments should cover in the future. I believe that we are now in a position to move the debate forward and I hope that when the new legislation ultimately enters into force, it will improve the quality of impact assessments as well as public confidence in their findings.

Ship recycling and the implementation of Nagoya Protocol on Access to and Benefit-Sharing of genetic resources are also under discussion with the European Parliament and Council and I appreciate the reports prepared in this house by Mr Leroy and Ms Auroi. These are valuable contributions to the on-going discussions on these dossiers.

We are also following closely the on-going Multi-annual Financial Framework discussions for the new LIFE+ funding instrument.

As you know, of course, the LIFE+ programme only represents a small fraction of EU funds that can be used to promote environmental improvements. Recent developments in the European Parliament on the reform of the Common Fisheries Policy are encouraging and in line with Commission's efforts to make it more sustainable and to ensure that EU funds are as effectively targeted as possible.

However, the thinking on the Common Agricultural Policy in the Council and Parliament up to now falls far short of what the Commission had proposed.

The Commission's CAP proposals were designed to improve the environmental impact of farming, while ensuring farmers' efforts are suitably rewarded. The proposals contain 3 main environmental elements: cross‑compliance rules, greening and rural development. We are taking a familiar road in trying to further green the CAP. It’s the route we have pursued for 20 years as we reconcile agricultural and environmental interests.  But if you think about it, it is really the only option we have. We need our land to be productive in the long-term but for that to happen, farmers need a fully functioning ecosystem which includes clean and abundant water, biodiversity and soil.  If present negative trends for all these persist, we will hand a bleak future to our children. This reform is as much about preserving the countryside for the environment so that we can continue to farm in future.

Present interventions by the Agriculture Council and European Parliament are almost all designed to take a lot of the substance out of greening. The same seems to be happening to cross compliance; and the budgetary allocation for Rural Development was again cut, which does not leave much room for manoeuvre for environmental improvements. It appears that none of the 3 elements supporting a greener CAP are likely to remain in a fit state to support anything.

If the result is green wash, this will be bad for the environment. But it will also be a very serious 'own goal' for agriculture. For who, outside agricultural interests, will ever listen again to the idea that the first pillar of the CAP is providing environmental public goods? And who will believe we can cut the rural development budget by up to a quarter (through the transfer possibilities) and still benefit both the environment and rural populations? People will remember the long debate of 2010-12 on public money for public goods; they will compare it with the outcome, and will say ''that was a failure, so we’d better try something else next time.''

We should be aware of one thing: if we cannot get environmental outcomes through integration and cooperation, the only alternative will be environmental legislation, which will also apply to farmers. And many people will again ask, even more forcefully, how can the 1st pillar be justified when farmers still receive payments even when they break relevant environmental law?


Honourable Members,

Legislation is not much use if it is not implemented. As legislators, I am sure you would be the first to agree. Non-implementation is also unfair; it leads to the distortion of markets and costs a lot of money. In the environment field, non-implementation of existing legislation is estimated to cost around €50 billion a year, including costs related to healthcare. Wasting this money, especially in the current economic circumstances, does not make sense.

Last year the Commission looked at improving the delivery of the benefits from EU environment measures and I became more convinced than ever that national legislators have a key role here.

You can help to:

  1. complete the transposition process on time. Delays mean uncertainty for investors and stakeholders and undermine the efforts of those who take the necessary steps to comply on time.

  2. design national implementing rules that best fit the challenges within the Member State concerned and build-in good information systems from the outset so that implementation can be efficiently tracked.

  3. and monitor to make sure that the right results are delivered.


Honourable ladies and gentlemen,

We are living through difficult and challenging times. Long-term thinking is not often rewarded, and that is particularly true in the current economic climate. But we must not lose sight of our aims. The decisions we take now will influence for decades how the environment can provide services in a way that is more sustainable and, at the same time, be a source of innovation and growth.

Your role as national parliamentarians is fundamental in taking these very decisions. Indeed, the Lisbon Treaty strengthened your role to ensure that our proposals take national characteristics into account.

Thank for your attention and I look forward to hearing your views.

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