I attended the EU Environment Council on 5 March in Brussels. I wish to update the House on the matters discussed.
Strategic EU long-term vision for a climate neutral economy—policy debate
The presidency invited member states to give their views on the Commission’s draft long-term strategy on climate, “A Clean Planet for all”, following an initial exchange of views at the Environment Council on 20 December 2018. The presidency asked for views on the challenges and opportunities arising from the transition to a climate-neutral economy and the enabling framework required to stimulate investment, especially private sector investment, in technology, education, and training.
Member states’ interventions focused on four main areas. First, a number of member states gave their views on the EU’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets for 2030, and the proposed target of net-zero GHG emissions in the EU by 2050. Some welcomed the ambition of the Commission’s proposed 2050 target, while others cautioned against any revision to the EU’s 2030 targets. Secondly, many argued that the strategy must recognise and enable a socially fair and just transition recognising the different impacts across member states, regions, and sectors of the economy. Thirdly, a number spoke of the need to frame the strategy positively, as the transition to a low-carbon economy presents opportunities including for competitiveness, employment, public health and the environment. Fourthly, the transition should be acceptable to citizens and businesses to give investors’ confidence in the direction of travel, given that both public and private investment will be crucial to the transition.
I intervened to welcome the Commission’s strategy as a positive response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees published in October 2018. I spoke of the need to ensure that all sectors of the economy take action to tackle climate change while at the same time managing the impact on those sectors disproportionately affected. I referred to the benefits of clean growth and that both technological and nature-based solutions must play their part in reducing emissions, including carbon capture usage and storage, and natural carbon sinks, such as mangrove forests. I emphasised that private sector investment and green finance will be integral to financing the transition and highlighted the UK’s funding for low-carbon innovation. In closing, I underscored that the United Nations’ Secretary General’s climate summit in September would be an important milestone, and that the UK intends to play a leading role on climate resilience at the summit.
Drinking water directive—general approach
The presidency invited member states to agree the proposed general approach, stressing debate should focus on article 10a and 10b, (materials and substances in contact with water) and article 13 (access to water). The Commission urged member states to agree the text, noting that they would reserve their position due to concerns on article 10a.
The UK, along with a number of other member states, fully supported article 10a and 10b. Others expressed concern, but noted that ultimately they could accept the proposed text. These member states also called for further work to help understand the impacts of the proposal and to clarify the text. Latvia, Estonia and Austria were unable to accept the general approach due to article 10a.
On article 13, member states noted the delicate Council position and agreed that the presidency text provided a good compromise. The UK highlighted concerns regarding subsidiarity, drawing attention to the UK Parliament’s reasoned opinion but confirmed that it could accept the compromise text.
The presidency concluded the general approach had been agreed. The Commission noted that more work was needed on article 10a and it would issue a formal declaration outlining its concerns.
Greening the European semester—exchange of views
The Council exchanged views on the greening of the European semester and post-2020 investments (6260/19) with member states stressing the importance of the environmental dimension. A group of member states recognised the importance of taking the Paris agreement into account.
EU framework on endocrine disruptors—policy debate
The Commission stressed the need for a coherent approach based on scientific advice, and the need to follow the precautionary approach where the science was inconclusive. It announced a cross-cutting fitness check on endocrine disruptors (with the aim of concluding findings in early 2020) and a new comprehensive forum to engage stakeholders.
Member states welcomed the Commission communication, with significant differences between the levels of ambition expressed. A small number of member states led a group calling for more concrete actions including a ban on endocrine disruptors in toys and consumer goods. Others, including the UK, were more cautious, stressing the need for further research and emphasising the importance of risk-based measures.
The following items were also discussed under any other business.
1. Global data collection system for ship fuel oil consumption
Council noted the information from the Commission on the proposal to revise the regulation on the monitoring, reporting and verification of carbon dioxide emissions from maritime transport. The aim of the proposal is to reduce the administrative burden for ships having to report under both EU regulations and the global data collection system for fuel oil consumption, established recently by the International Maritime Organisation.
2. Better EU enforcement of the EU phasedown of hydrocarbons
Council noted the information from the Commission.
3. Tackling greenhouse gas emissions through aviation pricing
Council noted the information from the Belgian delegation concerning its proposal for a fair, European pricing system on aviation. This information was previously presented at the Economic and Financial Affairs Council on 12 February by the Dutch delegation. Some member state delegations intervened in support of further work on this. The Commission stated that it will consider existing policy instruments and assess whether there is a need to make a legislative proposal.
4. Strengthening the coherence between EU free trade agreements and the Paris climate change agreement
Council noted the information from the French, Spanish, and Luxembourgish delegations, proposing that ratification of the Paris agreement should be an essential clause of the EU’s trade agreements with third countries, and that the Council should be able to suspend trade agreements following breaches of the obligations under the Paris agreement. Other member states expressed a degree of caution on the proposed approach. The Commission noted that such a proposal would need to be operational.
5. Outcome of the intermediary sessions of the parties to the Espoo convention and to the protocol on strategic environmental assessment (SEA) (Geneva, 5 to 7 February 2019)
Council noted the information from the presidency and the Commission regarding the work of the EU and member states. It also noted the decisions adopted at the meeting of the parties to the Espoo convention and the protocol on SEA, which the UK, other member states, and the EU attended. Lithuania stated that they considered that further steps were needed concerning the case of the Ostrovets nuclear power plant in Belarus.
6. Environmental protection policies to combat depopulation in rural areas and to improve quality of life
Council noted the information from the Spanish delegation and the difficulties between population and conservation efforts. Other member states intervened to show their support and outline their own nation’s struggles with depopulation.
7. Preparation for the 21st meeting of the contracting parties to the Barcelona convention for the protection of the marine environment and the coastal region of the Mediterranean (Naples, 2 to 5 December 2019)
Council noted the information from the Italian delegation. There were limited interventions around this AOB.
In the margins of the Council, I met with counterparts from member states and the European Commission to reassure them of our intention to continue working closely on these global environmental issues, and to highlight the UK’s bid to host the 26th conference of the parties (COP26) to the United Nations framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC).