EEB’s Annual Conference on the Environmental Agenda at the Turn of the Millennium, Brussels, 25.11.1999

Ladies and Gentlemen,

While some people regret the losses which modernisation has brought about compared with simpler life in the pre-industrial society, it is evident that man’s life has been in many ways revolutionised for the better. Today people at least in the better-off parts of the world can look forward to living out their biological life span.

This revolutionary progress has also had serious negative and unintended consequences of which we have become aware only quite lately. Mankind’s extensive use of natural resources has turned out to be largely unsustainable. Our even more efficient methods of cultivation, our industrial processes and our growing consumption of material goods have meant a correspondingly growing amount of waste and emissions in our environment. Most of this is innocuous at low levels. Ecology provides many illustrations of Marx’s maxim about quantity changing into quality.

It is important to realise just how unprecedented our dilemma with the environment is. Within a few decades or centuries at the most, we will have managed to effect more profound changes on the natural environment than a million of years of evolution.

All the effects of man on nature look like sudden, almost vertical, surges when related on time-scale to the two billion years of history of organic evolution. There is no way we can know how irrevocably and with what effect our impact on the environment has already accumulated. Thus we are engaged in a vast gamble with the future of our own and other species.

In the 70’s such concepts as the Ozone Hole, Acid Rain, or the Greenhouse Effect were almost unknown except to a handful of concerned scientists. Now they are the almost daily material of headlines even in the popular press. How can we have any certainty about all the possible effects these phenomena and others still unrecognised can have on the future of man and other species?

The consequences of these global environmental challenges are not only ecological. They will also greatly change the conditions and circumstances, which determine relations between men and societies as well as relations between the developed and the developing world. Even ideologies will be affected. All the dominant ideologies of the Western world have shared a mistaken concept of progress since the Enlightenment.

Ecological barriers are not comparable with man-made ones. They will neither succumb to force nor can they be negotiated away. Inherent in our Western view of progress has been a belief that the advance of science and technology would always find solutions enabling us to overcome any natural barriers. Now we recognise this for the costly fallacy it always was.

Nature’s resources are of course limited. But contrary to what the first wave of limits-to-growth literature as well as many classical economists in the 19th century usually preached, the exhaustion of natural resources will not be the first barrier to be reached. It is now recognised that the burden imposed on the environment by our present use of natural resources in terms of pollution, waste and other harmful effects will inevitably make us face the ecological limits of material growth long before the actual physical scarcity of raw materials will be felt.

I have wanted to remind you of the wider background to our concern about climate change and other issues of sustainability to which our policies must be addressed. Fortunately, this has been recognised and man has also shown his ability to change his behaviour and to take measures to restore environment. In particular, many local and regional emissions have been brought down to levels compatible with sustainability and we also can point out to examples where even very severe environmental damage has been repaired. Global challenges are much harder to tackle. But the Montreal Protocol and its implementation shows that common effort can bring results. As far as energy and climate change is concerned, a very important turn was reached when the relation between GNP growth and energy consumption reached the point where one per cent of growth was achieved with a less than one per cent increase in energy consumption. We should, however, remember that in a world where population continues to increase and where we are committed to raising living standards in poorer countries, sustainable development is a reality only when we can generate economic growth while absolutely reducing our non-sustainable use of energy and other natural resources. The report of the European Environment Agency, Environment in the European Union at the turn of the century is an ambitious work, which seeks to evaluate the status of sustainability in the EU by sectors. The overall assessment is that after 25 years of European environment policy we can see a clear improvement in Europe’s environmental condition.

However, most of the major challenges will remain for the next decade. GDP, population and consumption will all continue to grow and, despite some progress toward sustainability, it also means an increase in environmentally harmful emissions, particularly because of increased road and air transport as well as urbanisation and suburbanisation. The natural and biodiversity assets of Central and East-European countries, as well as those remaining in southern and Mediterranean countries and in northern and western Europe, will continue to be at risk.

The three dimensions, or pillars, of sustainable development are inter-related. Sustainable economic growth is necessary for the general progress of society and to ensure adequate financial resources for environmental protection. A good and co-ordinated integration of environmental actions into all our policies is needed to ensure their most cost-efficient and economic implementation and to avoid badly focused and ill-timed actions.

The social dimension of sustainable development reminds us that employment is perhaps the most the significant indicator of social welfare. Social security and a fair distribution of income are difficult to maintain without a high employment rate.

Integrating sustainable development into all of the different policy sectors means taking all these dimensions into account. The integration process, which was commenced at the Cardiff European Council and continued in the Vienna and Cologne Summits, is important. The first set of strategies concerning transport, industry, agriculture and energy will be available for the Helsinki European Council together with progress reports on other areas. The strategies emphasise similar elements in their own policy context. Obviously the first set of strategies cannot be complete long term strategies at this stage. Still they mark a good start in new thinking.

The Transport Council emphasises environmental protection as the means to promote sustainable development. The Council underlines actions for less emission-intensive and more environmentally friendly transport systems.

The transport sector will grow in volume, but the Council expresses no reservations in taking the responsibility to implement the Kyoto commitments both in the year 2005 and in the period 2008 – 2012. Transport is responsible for ca. 26% of the GHG emissions of the Community today.

The Transport Council has identified a number of policies that have already been implemented to integrate environmental aspects into transport policies: air quality has been improved through control of vehicles, modes of transport and fuels, as well as through voluntary agreements with the automobile industry. These have improved the general efficiency of transport and they have also contributed to noise abatement and to safeguarding the quality of seas.

Further steps are needed. The Council emphasises decisions on policy packages, which would combine the efforts of different actors, including technical, infrastructural, regulatory and economic measures, land use and transport planning, information and other measures influencing certain types of transport demand and behaviour of transport users.

The Council has done commendable work and taken into consideration different levels of politics, both vertically from local to global as well as geographically, including the future enlargement of the Union. It includes new measures in the assessment of environmental impacts and of new information technology, as well as the improvement of vehicle technology.

The Agriculture Council underlines the economic conductors of environmental protection in this integration strategy. The general idea is that farmers should observe the reference level of good environmental practices as part of recent support regimes, but any additional environment requirements beyond that should be adequately compensated by society through agri-environmental measures. The integration of environmental considerations into agricultural policy should be compatible with the “polluter-pays” principle, which is understood to mean that farmers should bear compliance costs up to a reference level of good agricultural practices.

Although the Council is concerned about the competitiveness of European farmers, it stresses that the EU should play a leading role in the global process of improving the environment. Additional costs of water protection, climate change abatement and air quality policies, landscape, biodiversity and animal welfare, as well as of forest protection could possibly endanger the economy of agriculture. On the other hand failure to meet the safety, health and environmental concerns of consumers will also have regulative effects on the economy of agriculture.

In agriculture, the trade-off between different aspects of sustainable development – economic, environmental and social aspects – seems to be firmly established. One could, however, detect a certain rigidity in the Council’s positions, which may not be quite sustainable. There is, perhaps, too little flexibility and willingness to take on the responsibility for environmental risks.

According to the Energy Council, energy has a key role to play in environmental protection and sustainable development and therefore has special responsibility. The energy sector is in a central position in the fulfilment of commitments entered into under the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

The energy sector has, after few decades following the energy crises in the 70’s, adapted to the sustainable use of energy sources. Therefore the concept of sustainable development, defined as treating economic, environmental and social aspects in a balanced way, can be directly linked to the prevailing goals of energy policy: security of supply, competitiveness and protection of the environment.

The policy framework is based on a sustained commitment to energy efficiency and energy saving, development of safe energy sources with low or non-existent CO2 emissions and reduction of the environmental impacts of energy sources with a high carbon content. The priority action areas include:

– developing the internal energy market;
– promoting a sustained increase of renewable energy sources;
– enhancing energy efficiency and saving;
– internalising the external costs/environmental benefits;
– promoting the research, development, demonstration and market introduction of new and advanced technology and techniques;
– increasing co-operation and co-ordination between Member States in particular with regard to the commitments of the Kyoto Protocol;
– enhancing the external dimension, including the enlargement process; and
– contributing to developing the flexible mechanisms (emissions trading, joint implementation, clean development mechanisms) so as to facilitate the fulfilment of the commitments of the Kyoto Protocol.

The subsidiarity principle is emphasised as a guiding principle. In addition to existing common and co-ordinated policies and measures, the strategy calls for new ones.

The Council underlines the importance of continuing the process. Monitoring, evaluation and review of the strategy are regarded as crucial requirements for the ongoing process, and a set of indicators has been defined to facilitate the task.

Other Councils
The Industry Council, the Internal Market Council and Development Council will also submit their progress reports to the Helsinki Council.

The Industry Council underlines the integrity of the sustainable development, all three criteria should be fulfilled simultaneously. Industry is affected by actions in other sectors, which aim to curb emissions. Industry policy consists of a wide range of actions, and active participation of the various industries is a typical feature of this policy. Voluntary agreements and policies like the integrated product policy, eco-efficiency policies, environmental management and the promoting of the best practices are examples of the industries’ own participation. Also, labelling and standardisation (including EMAS, environmental management systems) are well-accepted measures to control the environment impacts of production.

The competitiveness of the industry is a concern to the Council, and it stresses the industry’s own initiatives in the integration of environmental aspects and sustainable development. It underlines open communication in the Union and co-ordination within national governments.

The Internal Market Council tries to set a balanced approach that is synergy between free movement and environment protection, as a central element of the future strategy, and hopefully will achieve it when it continues its work. It prioritizes mostly the same practical measures as the Industry Council meaning more eco-efficiency, EMAS systems, standardisation, environmental labelling, and so forth. The Council does not see any serious conflict between the environmental targets and the development of the internal market, and points to good experiences of integration, such as the Auto-Oil directive and the directives on chemicals and wastes.

More work is deemed necessary, especially in the harmonisation of the environmental taxes, as well as related to State aids for environment protection and to monitoring systems.

The Development Council wants to promote sustainability both in partner countries and in the EU policies. For the partner countries, the alleviation of poverty is a high priority, but capacity building for sustainable development should begin simultaneously. In the EU policies, Environment Impact Assessment procedures should be linked to Community economic development co-operation strategies, programmes and projects.

Work has progressed well in the various Councils. Further guidelines for the continuing of the process will be adopted in the Helsinki European Council in December. One task of the Council is to give the impetus for continuing the work to integrate the sector strategies of the various councils into a comprehensive strategy for sustainable development for the Community as a whole.

However, mere strategies are not enough. They must also be actively implemented.

When assessing how our targets have been met we need information on the status and progress of the implementation process. Indicators are helpful, although they are not easy to construct, nor are they directly applicable in setting targets or timetables. Many targets and indicators are too simple to be more than of limited use in the practical promotion of sustainable development. As working tools they still need refinement.

Many of the most forward-looking enterprises have realised that environmental policies are not so much a limitation or a threat to business as an opportunity. Companies that adapt their operations early on to the requirements of sustainable development will obtain a significant comparative advantage vis-à-vis their slower competitors.

Sustainable development calls for the capacity to build up a balanced combination of economic and regulatory infrastructure and complementary voluntary actions. Business in particular has underlined the advantages of voluntary action. This is welcome, but only when it does not mean compromising the objectives of sustainable development or distort competition or markets. In most cases, regulation complementary to voluntary action is needed to solve the “free rider problem”. Voluntary action is likely to best succeed, when it is realised that the alternative is legislation. This is because governments cannot shy away from their responsibilities and leave policy-making to the market.

Good co-operation also requires openness on behalf of all the parties. Authorities should inform of their plans and be ready for an open dialogue as early as possible in the preparatory phase. Companies should also be open about the environmental impact of their operations and report on their contribution to sustainable development.

Consumers play an increasingly important role. There are many examples of consumer boycotts and other campaigns that have forced companies to improve their environmental record. More resources are needed for consumer organisations to enhance their environmental activities. Even investors can play their part as the growing scope and influence of ethical investment policies show.

Sustainable development is a global concept although the nation states bear the primary responsibility to implement the policies needed to achieve sustainability. Everyone has to be on board. All countries and regions must bear a fair share of the burden of adaptation and also get a fair share of the benefits of their efforts. This applies particularly to climate change prevention, where the problems and their solutions are global. Here, all the three dimensions of sustainable development – the economic, social and ecological – merge.

Ladies and Gentlemen!

The Helsinki Summit will discuss the next steps for integrating environmental aspects and sustainable development into sectorial policies. I want to stress that we are merely at the beginning of our exercise. The process will have to be continued both in individual sectors and also with the aim of formulating a comprehensive EU strategy for sustainable development. Europe as a whole needs a common strategy for meeting the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol.

Better co-ordination is needed at all levels and between all sectors. Recognising this the new Finnish Government decided to establish a ministerial committee under the chairmanship of the Minister of Trade and Industry and including the Ministers of Environment, Transport, Agriculture, Social Services and Finance as members, to draft the Finnish national programme for meeting the Kyoto targets. Other countries may find other ways of working more suitable, but whatever the form is it has to answer the need for close co-ordination between all those responsible for implementing our environmental policies. This co-ordination must be enhanced on the European level as well and it should include ways for involving environmental, business and other relevant NGOs organisations in the work as well.