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European Environment Council

Volume 577: debated on Thursday 13 March 2014

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and I represented the UK at the European Environment Council meeting in Brussels on 3 March. Paul Wheelhouse, Minister for Environment and Climate Change in the Scottish Government, and Alun Davies, Minister for Natural Resources and Food in the Welsh Government, also attended.

After adopting the agenda for the meeting, Environment Ministers discussed the framework for climate and energy in the period 2020 to 2030. The UK was joined by numerous member states, including Germany and France, in supporting a call for an agreement at the European Council in March. The majority of member states endorsed a greenhouse gas target of at least 40% with the UK and Sweden calling for a prospective target of 50% in the context of an ambitious agreement. The Secretary of State clarified that the UK could support a binding EU renewables target of 27% providing it could never become binding on member states nor be translated into national targets via EU-level action. Several member states welcomed the Commission’s proposal for reform of the emissions trading system, with the UK and Denmark calling for reform to be preceded by cancellation of allowances. Some Ministers called for more information and discussion on burden sharing.

Outside of Council, the Secretary of State joined the green growth group in co-signing a letter along with 12 other Ministers from the group, including those from France, Germany, Italy and Spain. The statement called for the European Council in March: to agree on the core elements of a climate and energy framework for 2030; to agree a domestic greenhouse gas target of at least 40%; an EU-level renewable energy target of at least 27% (which should not be translated into binding national targets); and asked the Council to consider the use of high-quality international carbon credits in the context of increasing climate ambition.

The Council considered a presidency compromise text on the proposal to allow member states to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of GMOs in all or part of their territory. Most member states, including the UK, supported reopening discussions on the basis of the presidency’s compromise although several noted they would like to see further technical revisions before possible agreement. I stressed that the EU was falling behind the rest of the world in terms of utilising GMOs. I recognised the difficulty for other member states and wanted to ensure there was legally-sound flexibility for countries or regions to opt-out of cultivating GM crops if they so wished. The presidency confirmed that a technical discussion of its compromise proposal would now be taken forward.

There was an exchange of views on greening the European semester. The UK, supported by Lithuania, favoured fostering greater green jobs and resource efficiency but underlined sensitivities around discussing taxation policy in Environment Council. The UK was clear that any decisions on tax should be taken by Finance Ministers in ECOFIN. Most member states supported greening the semester including a shift to “green taxation” and strengthening the role of Environment Ministers. Some advocated greater focus on resource efficiency and the need for indicators and targets. France underlined the costs of inaction while others pointed to the lack of access to finance as a barrier to the uptake of green technology which also had a disproportionate impact on innovative SMEs.

Under other business, the Commission emphasised the urgency of agreeing the ratification of the Kyoto protocol’s second commitment period before the 2015 conference of the parties. The Secretary of State highlighted that agreeing the amendment to the monitoring mechanism regulation under the European Parliament’s mandate risked making mistakes due to the lack of consideration.

The Commission presented its air quality package and noted that poor air quality was the main cause of early mortality in Europe’s urban areas and the economic damage caused through lost workdays and healthcare costs.

The Commission also introduced a communication on tackling illegal wildlife trafficking noting that the trade was a multi-billion euro business and the EU remained a transit point for wildlife products. The UK provided an update on the recent London conference including the launch of the elephant protection initiative. On shale gas, the Commission explained their aim to ensure extraction and exploitation would command support and confidence in all stakeholders. The UK, Poland and Romania stressed the current legislative framework was adequate and questioned the implication that the Commission would bring forward legislation in 18-months’ time. The Commission said the review clause allowed the Commission to take action if member states failed to fulfil their promises. A number of member states supported the establishment of a sub-group to deal with key problems in the review of the large combustion plant best available techniques reference document.

Over lunch, Ministers discussed the soil framework directive. The UK and a majority of member states supported the withdrawal of the current text preferring non-binding measures.