The European Union remains true to its decision to maintain its position of a climate leader and intends to continue with its ambitious climate policies, despite the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement – says Karmenu Vella, European Commissioner for the Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries. More and more businesses are seeing their interest in investing in green solutions as part of their own growth policy. One example is the circular economy, which has created new possibilities for investments and produces new types of jobs, confirming that “the economy and the environment are two sides of the same coin,” says CorD’s interlocutor.
The UN’s 2030 Agenda reflects many of the EU’s sustainable development priorities. What are the most relevant sustainability concerns within your mandate, and to what extent are they being addressed by the policies already in place?
– My mandate is fully in line with the spirit of the UN 2030 Agenda. Today it is no longer a question of balance between the economy – blue and green – and the environment, rather it is all about integrating the two. We are making good progress towards a circular and low carbon economy, but our crowded and warming planet calls for even more ambitious and innovative solutions.
Which sectoral policies do you envisage in your department following the reorientation of the EU budget’s contributions within the new Multiannual Financial Framework beyond 2020?
– The European Commission will present its proposal for an EU Budget for the future in May. It will be an investment budget that delivers a Europe that is prosperous and sustainable. But it is too early to prejudge the next Multiannual Financial Framework, and hence we cannot speculate on its impact on EU candidate countries and their environment-related obligations.
The European Union is a climate leader. Which goals do you see as the most urgent; and will the EU be able to allocate sufficient resources to supporting the poorest and least developed countries in sticking to this path?
– Two years after the adoption of the Paris Agreement, the EU remains fully committed to reducing its domestic emissions by at least 40% between 1990 and 2030. We are on track to meet our 2020 target and have already adopted our climate legislation for the decade ahead. Our emissions are declining while the economy grows, largely thanks to innovative technologies, showing that growth and climate action can go hand in hand. Whereas GDP grew by some 10 per cent from 2005 to 2015, primary energy consumption fell by almost 11 per cent in the same period. The signal is clear: cleaner energy and economic growth can go hand in hand. The EU has shown its commitment to the fight against climate change by mainstreaming spending on climate action across all EU programmes.
The EU is the biggest climate finance contributor globally, amounting to €20.2 billion in 2016 – a significant 15 per cent increase compared to 2015. Climate finance from the EU budget will more than double between 2014 and 2020. The EU’s new External Investment Plan will play an important role in promoting inclusive growth and job creation in Africa and EU Neighbourhood countries. The newly created European Fund for Sustainable Development will leverage public investment to trigger more private capital flows to sustainable projects. This new external instrument, adapted to the specific needs of partner countries, builds on the success of the European ‘Juncker Plan’ model, which has already triggered investment worth around €250 billion within the EU.
One of the greatest challenges for Europe is to protect the environment while maintaining its competitiveness. Are EU budgets, and the budgets of European companies, ready to sustain investments in environmental protection and still keep pace with their counterparts in, for example, the U.S., who are not burdened by such costs?
– Greening our economy is not a luxury. It is key to maintaining our competitiveness. As the global competition for resources grows, we have no choice but to increase resource productivity, particularly as we in Europe are so dependent on imports of materials. Many industries have already recognised the strong business case for improving resource productivity and are investing in green and sustainable solutions.
The newly created European Fund for Sustainable Development will leverage public investment to trigger more private capital flows to sustainable projects. It builds on the success of the European ‘Juncker Plan’ model
Agenda 2030, alongside other efforts leading towards a more sustainable environment, has a strong dimension in the creation of sustainable jobs that preserve natural resources. Which jobs do you see as having the best prospects when it comes to achieving this goal?
– With the EU’s clear commitment to moving to a more circular economy, and to implementing the Paris climate agreement, I am convinced that we will see new opportunities emerge across the board – in renewable energy, recycling and waste management, organic farming, sustainable transport, the water and the maritime sector. Both blue- and white-collar jobs can become green jobs.
One of your responsibilities is to work with the EU’s global partners on defining the management and governance of our planet’s oceans. What are the most pressing tasks in this field?
– Unsustainable exploitation of marine resources, illegal fishing, marine pollution and the impact of climate change on our oceans are among the most pressing challenges we face today. All of these challenges require global solutions, especially given that two thirds of the oceans lie outside national jurisdiction.
As we all know, many countries felt threatened by the criteria imposed upon them by the Fisheries policy, amongst them Portugal, Spain and Iceland, which even opted not to join the EU for this very reason. How can the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy address these challenges, which leave some countries considering that certain restrains represent open threats to the sustainability of their economies?
– I think the facts speak for themselves. Thanks to the EU’s fisheries policy, we have drastically increased the stock fished at sustainable levels over the last decade. And fishermen are reaping the rewards: the EU’s fleets register record-high net profits. The economy and the environment are two sides of the same coin.
An estimated 400,000 people a year die due to poor air quality in the EU. Targets introduced for 2005 and 2010 are still being exceeded in 23 of the EU’s 28 member states. Poland, Bulgaria, France and Germany have already faced legal action over air quality issues. Bulgaria has since made some progress. How about others?
– EU clean air policies have helped to ensure our air is healthier to breathe. But in none of the 23 countries have we seen sufficient progress on this very basic issue of life quality, which is the number one environmental concern of EU citizens after climate change. Currently, 130 European cities are struggling to meet current air quality standards.
You have also stated that countries’ proposals “were not substantial enough to change the big picture”. Which legislative or other tools do you have to persuade them to “change big”?
– We use both stick and carrot: pursuing infringements and continuing to help Member States through Clean Air Dialogues or the EU Urban Agenda. We are sharing knowledge and showcasing successful solutions. There is also considerable EU funding to help improve air quality across the continent.
Single-use disposable plastic items like cutlery will be curbed by new EU proposals due out in May. How well has the EU progressed so far with plastic reductions, and what are your hopes for the future?
– Every year European consumers generate 25 million tonnes of plastic waste, only 30 per cent of which is currently recycled. Some 95 per cent of the value of plastic packaging – worth some €105 billion– is lost to the economy every year. With the EU Plastics Strategy, we are aiming for all plastic packaging on the EU market to be recyclable or reusable by 2030. The European Parliament and Council have also reached a provisional agreement on new waste rules, with ambitious recycling targets, including for plastic waste. Taken together, all these measures will make the EU the global front-runner in waste management and recycling.
People all over Europe – and I am convinced in Serbia too – are tiring of the disposable culture. They don’t want birds, turtles and sea life to get entangled in plastic bags and old fishing nets, which means they should give them up easily
An EU regulation adopted in 2015 imposed the phasing out of single-use plastic bags by 2019. When it comes to Serbia, which is just beginning this fight, could you tell us how you persuade large supermarkets and shopping centres to follow the lead set by the EU?
– I don’t think they will need a lot of persuasion, as this is what consumers really want. People all over Europe – and I am convinced in Serbia too – are tiring of the disposable culture. They don’t want birds, turtles and sea life to get entangled in plastic bags and old fishing nets. More than seven in ten Europeans have cut down on their use of plastic bags in the last two years. Putting a price on carrier bags has proven very effective, but awareness raising campaigns also go a long way towards changing people’s behaviour. There are a great many inspiring campaigns.
The European Commission last year adopted a guidance document on access to justice in environmental matters, which stipulates how individuals and associations can challenge public authorities’ decisions, acts and omissions related to EU environmental legislation before local courts. To what extent are environmental groups and citizens taking advantage of this possibility?
– We don’t have statistics, but the case-law of the Court itself shows that individuals and NGOs have been taking matters to national courts to ensure respect for the EU’s rules on quality of air, water and nature. By bringing together all these court decisions on access to justice in one guidance document, we are not only helping citizens and NGOs, but also national authorities and courts to deliver on the benefits of EU environmental rules.
Noise pollution is the second biggest environmental health threat in Europe, according to the World Health Organisation. Given that noise reduction measures are cost-effective, why are EU states slow to implement them?
– EU rules require Member States to map noise and draw up action plans to mitigate its negative effects. Local authorities often need greater capacity when it comes to planning these health and wellbeing objectives. This is particularly true in cities, as noise is predominantly an urban issue. But there is help on the way here. The EU’s Urban Agenda, for example, provides modern tools that will help to cut excessive noise.
Some of the newer EU members states joined the Union without having satisfied environmental criteria. One example is Croatia, which is struggling – among other things – with waste management. What will the repercussions be for EU membership candidate countries?
– There are no shortcuts to EU membership. Candidate countries must be able to take on and effectively implement all EU legislation, including in the area of the environment. Accession is, and will remain, a merit-based process that’s dependent on objective progress achieved by each candidate country.