3. New Directions

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3.1 Introduction

During the 1980s it became increasingly apparent that placing reliance on environmental conventions, agreements and even legislation to secure environmental protection could only be partially effective. The Report of the UN's World Commission on Environment and Development(5) published in 1987, highlighted the urgent need for a fundamental shift in direction towards sustainable forms of economic development. At the UNCED Conference in 1992, the countries of Europe were among the 178 nations which accepted the requirements of Agenda 21, a detailed programme which elaborates the tangible requirements of sustainable development. At about the same time, the European Union's own blueprint was set out in the Fifth Environmental Action Programme, Towards Sustainability.

In Europe, the collapse at the end of the 1980s of the old regimes in central and eastern Europe gave added urgency to the task of finding new ways of integrating environmental protection with economic development. For decision makers in both the public and private sectors, therefore, the 1990s have been a period for exploring new directions. In such unfamiliar territory, never has the need been greater for information and analysis of novel policy approaches and instruments.

3.2 The UNCED Process

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in June 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, focused the world's attention on the need to promote environmentally sustainable development. The conference was attended by representatives of 178 nations, including a number of European Heads of State and/or Government and the President of the European Commission. Five documents were finalised and agreed at Rio. These are listed in Box 6.

Box 6: The UNCED Agreements

Agenda 21, which sets out a comprehensive programme of action for achieving sustainable development. sector by sector. for the next century. The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which lists 27 principles of sustainable management.
A Statement of Principles for the Sustainable Management and Use of Forests.
The Framework Convention on Climate Change, which aims to reduce emissions op greenhouse gases.
The convention on Biodiversity, which aims to conserve biological diversity, promote sustainable management and the equitable sharing, of genetic resources.


Securing the commitment in principle of most of the countries of the world to a new approach to the issues of environment and development was an undoubted achievement. However, the UNCED agreements were inevitably the product of political compromises and in many cases reflect the lowest common denominator at which agreement could be secured. The Framework Convention on Climate Change, for example, contains no binding timetable for reducing C02 emissions. Instead stabilisation at 1990 levels by the year 2000 is stated merely as a desirable aim. Similarly, during the course of the conference the Convention on Biological Diversity was criticised by the EU for not going far enough.

Potentially the most significant of the UNCED achievements was the 800-page Agenda 21, possibly the most complex document ever negotiated at an international conference. It contains four sections, forty chapters, 115 programmes, and approximately 2,500 actions to be implemented by governments at the national, regional and global levels. Agenda 21 represents only the beginning rather than the end of a process, and a number of firm targets were omitted during pre-conference negotiations. Most significantly, the industrialised nations (including the EU) failed to agree to increase their official development aid to 0.7 per cent of their GNP by the year 2000.

Crucially, the value of the Agenda 21 commitments depends on the success of the follow-up process. UNCED established the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), with responsibility for examining the progress of implementation of Agenda 21 at all levels, together with those activities related to the integration of environmental and developmental goals.

National strategies or action plans are the key to the implementation of Agenda 21. National sustainability plans are required which address future intended action for achieving sustainability, and for integrating the commitments made at the summit into general policy and programmes. The fifth Environmental Action Programme represents an important point of departure for the implementation of Agenda 21 in the EU.

In the first year following UNCED, however, only approximately 50 national reports were received by the CSD, from more than 170 countries which took part. The quality and scope of these reports varies greatly, and there is a clear need for guidance based on a review of best practice on how to draw up and implement such plans.

The CSD is to prepare an overview of progress in implementing Agenda 21 for presentation at its session in 1997.

3.3 Towards sustainability in the EU

The fifth Environmental Action Programme

Just three months before the countries of Europe accepted the commitments in Agenda 21, the European Commission published its own blueprint for achieving sustainability in the EU. In so doing it set a radically different course for the Community's environmental policy.

This was followed in 1993 by the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. The new Treaty for the first time makes 'sustainable growth respecting the environment' a key objective for Community activity. It also aims for a high level of environmental protection, implementation of the precautionary principle, and the integration of environmental considerations into all relevant Community policies.

The new approach contained in the fifth programme has a number of dimensions:

  • The principal focus is the agents and activities which cause pollution and the depletion of natural resources in the first place, rather than the problems after they have emerged;
  • Environmental considerations need to be integrated into five key economic sectors with significant effects on the environment:
    • industry
    • agriculture
    • energy
    • transport
    • tourism
  • Changes in society's patterns of behaviour are to be achieved in a spirit of shared responsibility among key actors, including central and local government, public and private enterprise, and the general public (as both individual citizens and consumers);
  • The range of policy instruments applied to the solution of environmental problems should be broadened considerably beyond 'command and control' legislation. Examples of new policy instruments are described in Box 7.

Box 7: New Policy Instruments

Economic instruments — to sensitise producers and consumers to the responsible use of natural resources and the avoidance of pollution and waste. Economic instruments can include charges and levies, tax incentives and state aids. The establishment of a system of legal liability for damage to the environment can also provide a clear economic incentive for better environmental management and control. In addition, EU financial support mechanisms such as the Structural Funds and the LIFE financial instrument also have a significant role; Voluntary agreements and self regulation by industry, including industry-wide pollution reduction targets; eco-audit and eco-labelling schemes; and the application of environmental product standards;

Improved information and education to enable the public, in a spirit of shared responsibility, to make more informed choices.


Further elaboration of what a move towards sustainable development in the EU would entail was contained in the Commission's White Paper Growth, Competitiveness and Employment published in December 1993.(6) The Commission argues that the twin challenges currently facing the Community of environmental pollution and high unemployment are the result of a fundamental inefficiency in the economic system in which there is an over-use of natural and environmental resources combined with an under-use of the quality and quantity of the labour force. A new economic development model is required in which inter alia the burden of taxation is shifted from employment towards resource use in order to secure both jobs and environmental protection. In this way, the currently negative relationship between economic prosperity and environmental quality can be reversed.

A broader mix of instruments

Economic instruments are just one of a number of policy tools that the fifth Action Programme argues are necessary to move towards sustainability. Environmental legislation, however., will continue to be necessary for setting fundamental levels of protection, or for establishing the common standards necessary to preserve the integrity of the internal market. But reliance on legislation alone has its limitations:

  • legislation by its nature tends to focus on pollution from readily identifiable sources such as manufacturing industry or products, rather than on more diffuse sources or activities;
  • much legislation adopts an 'end-of-pipe' rather than a preventative approach to pollution control. For example, laws limiting the level of nitrates in drinking water may be necessary only because the cause of the problem - which may be the excessive application of fertilisers by farmers - has not been properly tackled:
  • the process of developing new legislation may be too cumbersome and time-consuming. For example, it would be impossible to develop detailed rules governing the use of all 100,000 chemicals currently used in manufacturing industry;
  • the use of legislation can reflect a 'top-down' approach to environmental protection in which responsibility for initiating action may be perceived to belong to governments alone. The scale of current environmental problems is such that responsibility for tackling them must be shared between different actors.

The need for information and analysis

With the new direction set by fifth Action Programme, information and analysis presented in an accessible and efficient form becomes even more an essential underpinning of the EU's environmental policy.

  • Most fundamentally, Europe's Environment has highlighted the gaps and limitations in available data, and the need for better standardisation of information retrieval, collation and interpretation.
  • There is an urgent need to review and distil experience from around the world of how governments are seeking to develop and implement national sustainability plans. Evidence from such countries as Canada, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden suggests that as well as an overarching plan itself, also required are Action Plans for particular sectors and/or objectives; annual performance reviews by sectoral Government Ministries; the development of new mechanisms to integrate environmental concerns across the work of government; and the application of new regulatory, economic and judicial instruments.
  • The effective use of new policy instruments requires the availability of information on their application and effectiveness.
  • Shared responsibility for environmental protection requires all key 'players' to be informed on:
    • the true nature of the environmental challenges and risks they face;
    • the nature and impact of current and potential actions by public authorities to tackle them;
    • what their own contribution might be as producers, consumers and decision-makers.

3.4 The 'Environment for Europe' process

New mechanisms for pan-European co-operation

The collapse at the end of the 1980s of the old regimes in central and eastern Europe revealed for the first time the true extent of what can only be described as an environmental disaster. As the curtain lifted, the picture that emerged showed

  • locally very high levels of air and water pollution giving rise to widespread respiratory diseases, allergies, infant mortalities and congenital defects
  • an average life expectancy many years below that in western Europe
  • extensive damage to forests and other ecosystems caused by acid emission,,, from heavy industry and a generally inefficient pattern of energy use.

Moreover, the introduction of market economies and the prospect of future rapid economic growth threatened to make the situation even worse.

It was against this background that in June 1991 the 'Environment for Europe' process was formally launched at Dobris Castle in Czechoslovakia. To some extent the ground had already been prepared during the late 1980s by a number of all-European meetings organised by the UN-ECE in the framework of the CSCE process, and in 1990 by the Norwegian Government as a regional follow-up to the World Commission on Environment Development. The Dobris Castle conference was, however, more ambitious. This first all-European conference of Environment Ministers - attended by ministers from all European countries (including the then Soviet Union) and the European Commission's Environment Commissioner - issued a call for a new Environmental Programme for Europe - a framework for the better co-ordination of national and international environmental efforts, setting priorities for restoring existing environmental damage and the prevention of future problems.

Since then, an on-going series of activities by European and international organisations and many individual countries has kept up the momentum. A further 'Environment for Europe' ministerial conference was held in Lucerne in April 1993 and a third is planned for October 1995 in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Specifically, the Dobris Castle conference called for

  • the publication of a Report on the State of the Environment in Europe. This will be published imminently by the European Environment Agency as the 600-page Europe's Environment;
  • the development of a short-term Environmental Action Programme for Central and Eastern Europe;
  • a longer-term Environmental Programme for Europe.

The Environmental Action Programme for Central and Eastern Europe

The Environmental Action Programme for Central and Eastern Europe (EAP) was the principal document to he discussed and endorsed at the Lucerne Conference.

The EAP is not a binding document - rather it provides a framework for policy makers and financial institutions and investors as they approach the enormous task of tackling environmental problems in the CEE countries. As such, it now forms the basis of a partnership between the CEE and western European countries, in which the former undertake essential policy and institutional reforms, while the latter offer technical assistance and financial support for high priority projects.

The sheer scale of the environmental problems facing the countries in transition is fear larger than the local or international resources available to tackle them. The EAP, therefore, sets out guidelines for establishing essential priorities. It focuses on those actions and measures that offer high benefits for relatively low cost.

Three types of action are outlined in detail:

  • Immediate expenditures in areas where the costs of existing environmental damage are high - such as immediate threats to human health and the prevention of irreversible, long-term damage to ecosystems. Proposed expenditure priorities are listed in Box 8.
  • policy reforms, many of which aim to integrate environmental considerations into the process of economic reconstruction;
  • Institutional capacity building.

Box 8: Expenditure priorities identified by the EAP

Tackling immediate threats to health through, for example, improved dust controls for non-ferrous smelters and steel plants, as well as the replacement of coal with gas in district heating plants and households in areas of poor air quality; Action on specific problems in individual countries, such as inadequate waste water treatment facilities that threaten valuable coastal, tourist and ecological resources;

Government support for private sector environmental investments to reduce harmful emissions, such as saline discharges by mines, and the toxic emissions of pulp, textile and chemical plants;

Low-cost preventive measures that will save far greater expenditure in the future. Such measures include the phasing out of leaded gasoline and reducing vehicle emissions; more research on ecosystems; and the development of systems to collect, interpret and disseminate environmental data.


The central message of the EAP is that getting the policy and institutional framework right is probably more important than any other type of environmental action. Particular emphasis is placed on the use of economic instruments, although the optimum 'mix' of policy instruments will differ according to the nature of the problem. The clarification of environmental liability and the introduction of integrated, rather than single-medium, approaches to pollution control, are also stressed.

Proposed measures to strengthen the institutional infrastructure for developing effective environmental policies include:

  • the development of national sustainability plans;
  • defining the function of environment ministries and establishing mechanisms for integrating environmental considerations into the work of sectoral ministries;
  • establishing systems of environmental impact assessment not only for projects. but also for policies and programmes;
  • improving management capacity, training and education;
  • establishing improved environmental monitoring and information systems;
  • widening access to environmental information, and increasing public awareness and commitment to environmental protection.

What the practical effect of EAP will be depends essentially on the political will of those who commissioned and endorsed it, and on the range and quality of the technical support available to the CEE countries. All the countries represented at the Lucerne Conference undertook to review the implementation of the EAP, inter alia, through environmental performance reviews.

At a European level, responsibility for facilitating the implementation of the EAP has been allocated to two bodies established by the Lucerne Conference:

  • a Task Force, the secretariat of which is provided by the OECD;
  • a Project Preparation Committee, to improve co-ordination among donors in relation to environmental investments in the countries of CEE.

Environmental Programme for Europe

Work continues on the longer-term Environmental Programme for Europe (EPE), spearheaded by a Working Group representing the UN-ECE, the European Commission, UNEP and other international organisations and financial institutions. The EPE - which, like the Environmental Action Programme for Central and Eastern Europe, will be a non-binding framework document - may be ready for adoption at the Sofia conference in October 1995. In addition to key strategic issues emerging from Europe's Environment, the EPE is expected to focus on the following objectives, many of which were identified in the Ministerial Declaration issued following the Lucerne Conference:

  • improved co-operation in the development and application of environmentally-sound technologies;
  • the phasing out of unsafe nuclear installations and intensified action to develop energy efficiency programmes and renewable sources of energy;
  • the development of integrated pollution prevention and control;
  • wider use of economic and fiscal instruments, and co-ordinated moves to apply them at an international level to offset competitive disadvantages;
  • the development of non-compliance regimes for international legal instruments;
  • strengthened systems for monitoring compliance with and securing the enforcement of environmental law and policy;
  • the development of a framework for' burden sharing' to offer CEE countries financial support for the application of international environmental agreements;
  • better education and training in environmental issues and policy;
  • the encouragement of wider public participation.

The way forward

It is too early to reach a definitive conclusion on the effectiveness of the 'Environment for Europe' process. It is an achievement in itself regularly to bring together so many Environment Ministers with a commitment to co-operate over the long-term, right across the continent. Moreover the process can keep issues like the use of economic instruments and burden sharing at the top of Europe's agenda when the EU has so far had limited success in taking them forward.

However, in many of the participating countries the Environment for Europe process lacks political commitment, and this inevitably affects their willingness to implement the actions proposed. Meanwhile, there is almost total ignorance among parliamentarians, NG0s and the general public of what is being discussed and agreed within this unfamiliar framework. Once again, the widespread availability of better information and analysis on the issues at stake and the options for tackling them is needed to keep up the momentum.

3.5 National and sectoral initiatives

Shared responsibility for environmental protection requires action to be taken at all levels of government - European, national and local - and through voluntary initiatives by industry, non-governmental organisations and individuals. Across Europe there are many examples of such initiatives, just a few of which are described below. The collection and dissemination of information on actions such as these, and the identification of good practice, can make an important contribution in the movement towards sustainability.

Chemical Industry's Responsible Care Programme

Since 1984 a growing number of national chemical industry associations have introduced voluntary Responsible Care programmes to demonstrate managerial commitment to environmental protection and safety. The UK's Chemical Industries Association (CIA), for example, makes adherence to the Responsible Care Programme a condition of membership. Members sign an undertaking pledging to make health. safety and environmental performance integral to their overall business policy.

In both the Netherlands and the UK, the initiative has been taken to add substance to that commitment by publishing quantitative data on members' environmental performance. In the UK six indicators are used f6r measuring industrial performance including spending on environmental protection, releases to the environment. distribution incidents and public complaints.

Despite some difficulties in gathering data from all participating companies, the Responsible Care Programme represents an important voluntary industrial initiative towards improving environmental standards.

Environmental Covenants in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands the integration of the environment with industry has been assisted by the use of covenants or agreements. By signing a declaration of intent industrial sectors voluntarily commit themselves to implementing a set of environmental objectives. Over the last decade 18 covenants have been signed relating to the environmental properties of products; 8 relating to process emissions; and 26 relating to energy conservation. A covenant is presently being drafted with the association of electricity producers, designed to stabilise C02 emissions attributable to the sector at 1990 levels, by 2010 at the latest.

As a further demonstration of 'shared responsibility', the development and implementation of environmental measures in the Netherlands is being devolved from government to the major polluters. For example, electricity distributors have taken the initiative and established emission reduction targets for C02, SO2 and N0x, with stricter targets than those set by the Government.

Transnational Initiative for End-of-Life Cars

European car manufacturers have been developing facilities to deal with scrapped cars for several years. The first disassembly plant was opened in Germany in 1990 by Volkswagen and various German initiatives have since been in the pipeline. However, the millions of scrapped cars that arise annually cannot be handled adequately by one country or one manufacturer alone. An initiative which is transnational and brings together all manufacturers has been launched by the European Commission as part of its Priority Waste Streams Programme. The aim of the programme is to bring together government, industry and environmental interests so that a consensus may be reached on future action.

A transnational car recycling strategy has been drawn up by a project group aimed in the short-term at the re-utilisation of materials, although emphasis will shift more to the development of 'recyclable' vehicles in the longer-term. Without providing subsidies or infringing on competition, the strategy targets a 95% recovery rate for vehicle materials by the year 2015.

Economic Instruments in Norway

The application of economic instruments for environmental purposes has risen high on the policy agendas of most OECD countries. Norway is one of the most advanced countries in Europe in translating this commitment into concrete action. Eco-taxes have been introduced on sulphur content of oil, C02 emissions, noise at airports, fertilisers and pesticides, and differentiated taxes applied to leaded and unleaded gasoline.

In 1989, the Norwegian Government established the Green Tax Commission, largely consisting of ministers from various sectors. The Commission highlighted the need to develop a more environmentally-sound economic system. As a follow-up, an evaluation is now being carried out to establish more cost-effective economic instruments which might replace administrative policy instruments in the future.

Norway has been fortunate to have had a high level of integration between Government Ministries taking decisions on fiscal and environmental issues. It has the added advantage of having a population accustomed to high levels of excise duties, and strongly in favour of environmental protection measures.

Environmental Employment Schemes in France

The benefits of aligning employment and environmental objectives are great and the French Government has taken a lead in using this strategy to create jobs without increasing environmental costs. A budget of 100 million FF for 1994, administered by the Regional Directorates for the Environment, is intended for environmental projects, with the aim of creating 35,000 jobs for the environment by the end of 1995. The scheme will be coordinated by environmental protection groups, involving local and regional participation.

A second measure in France involves redirecting military service conscripts towards community service as "environmental volunteers" for a duration of 10 months, thereby increasing the total value of their contribution to the community. The men are placed at the service of public authorities and given tasks such as the protection and management of natural areas, monitoring, maintenance duties, and informing the public.

Environment Agencies in Spain

A useful tool has been developed in Spain to integrate environmental concerns into other policy sectors at regional level. Agenias de Media Ambiente (AMA) or Environment Agencies, currently operate in four of Spain's Autonomous Regions. They bring together a number of different sectoral ministries to develop environmental policy, thus spreading the 'ownership' of environmental protection measures and facilitating their implementation. Apart from offering a forum for the development of environmental measures, AMAs are especially useful in countries where environmental concerns do not rate highly on the political agenda, and where no separate Environment Ministry exists.


European Environment Agency (EEA)
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1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100