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Environment Council

Volume 525: debated on Thursday 24 March 2011

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and I represented the United Kingdom at the Environment Council on 14 March in Brussels.

At the beginning of the Council, Environment Commissioner Potocnik updated Ministers on the situation in Japan and was joined by member states in offering condolences and support.

The Council reached political agreement on the first reading of the recast of the directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), agreeing more ambitious collection and recycling targets for these materials (to be introduced over time and subject to full impact assessment) and measures to reduce red tape. In discussions I stressed the importance of clarity for industry on the scope of the directive and the importance of reviews and impact assessments before any changes were made in this area. I also supported improvements to the methodology for calculating recovery targets to ensure greater certainty.

Ministers then exchanged views on the proposal for a regulation regarding the possibility for member states to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) within their own territory. The main focus of the debate was on the Commission’s proposed list of possible justifications for prohibiting cultivation. I argued that any agreement would need to improve the operation of the decision-making process in a legally sound, proportionate and pragmatic way. Like other member states, I stressed the need for a clear legal view of the compatibility of the proposals with EU internal market rules and our WTO obligations. I was also concerned that some of the suggested grounds for national bans were inconsistent with the existing robust EU system that takes a science-based approach in evaluating the health and environmental effects of proposed GMOs. Other grounds risked unintended consequences. I concluded it was not clear that the Commission proposal would improve the system and it could set an unwelcome precedent for other areas in moving away from a science-based approach.

The Council agreed conclusions on the review of the Community strategy concerning mercury. These welcome progress made in the EU and call for a successful conclusion to the international negotiations on a global legally binding instrument on mercury.

Ministers exchanged views on the common agricultural policy towards 2020. I welcomed the presidency decision to hold a discussion on this among Environment Ministers. I underlined the need for the CAP to have a greater focus on confronting the challenges of climate change, protecting natural resources and preventing environmental degradation. These challenges are well analysed in the recent UK Foresight report on global food and farming futures. I commended this report to colleagues in the Council and circulated copies for their information. I argued that the CAP is a key mechanism to achieve our environmental goals and explained that the UK sees pillar 2 of the CAP as the primary tool for doing this. The debate sent a strong message that the future CAP should contribute more to our environmental and climate objectives in line with the EU 2020 strategy.

I also spoke in the discussion on the Environment Council’s “Contribution to the EU Semester” (i.e. review of the annual growth survey) in advance of consideration by the European Council. I stressed the importance of moving early to a resource-efficient, climate-resilient, low-carbon economy if we are to achieve a sustainable economic recovery. Many member states intervened on comparable lines. The presidency noted that resource efficiency and climate change were integral elements in this process.

Several points were discussed under other business on non-climate environment issues, during which I introduced a joint note with Austria, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Spain on whaling. We emphasised the need for the EU to express its existing strong position of opposition to commercial whaling wherever appropriate, including the next round of International Whaling Commission discussions in July and also when negotiating the proposed accession of new member states. A number of member states spoke on a point raised by Austria on measures taken to reduce the usage of single-use carrier bags; other member states took the opportunity to describe a variety of successful actions taken for this purpose.

During the lunch discussion my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State led member states in welcoming the Commission’s 2050 low-carbon road map. There will be further detailed discussion of the road map at the informal Environment Council at the end of the month.

Under climate items, the Council adopted conclusions on the follow-up to the meeting of the UN framework convention on climate change at Cancun in December 2010. These welcome the progress made at Cancun and call for early action in taking forward the agreed work streams and outstanding technical issues. Discussion focused mainly on the legal form of a future comprehensive agreement and the EU’s position on a second commitment period of the Kyoto protocol. My right hon. Friend was supported by other member states in calling for the EU to maintain its position of being open to this, which had been well received at Cancun. Conclusions were agreed which reiterate the position adopted at the October Environment Council.

Under other business on climate change issues, the Council received updates from the Commission on the state of the EU emissions trading system registry and the joint procurement agreement for the single auction monitor; and information from Denmark on the use of industrial gas credits under the effort sharing decision.