The LIFE programme is the EU’s funding instrument for the environment. The general objective of LIFE is to contribute to the implementation, updating and development of EU environmental policy and legislation by co-financing pilot or demonstration projects with European added value.
LIFE began in 1992 and to date there have been four complete phases of the programme (LIFE I: 1992-1995, LIFE II: 1996-1999, LIFE III: 2000-2006 and LIFE+: 2007-2013). During this period, LIFE has co-financed some 3954 projects across the EU, contributing approximately €3.1 billion to the protection of the environment.
The LIFE 2014-2020 Regulation (EC) No 1293/2013 was published in the Official Journal L 347/185 of 20 December 2013. The Regulation establishes the Environment and Climate Action sub-programmes of the LIFE Programme for the next funding period, 2014–2020. The budget for the period is set at €3.4 billion in current prices.
The LIFE programme will contribute to sustainable development and to the achievement of the objectives and targets of the Europe 2020 Strategy, the 7th Union Environmental Action Programme and other relevant EU environment and climate strategies and plans.
The ‘Environment’ strand of the new programme covers three priority areas: environment and resource efficiency; nature and biodiversity; and environmental governance and information. The ‘Climate Action’ strand covers climate change mitigation; climate change adaptation; and climate governance and information.
The programme also consists of a new category of projects, jointly funded integrated projects, which will operate on a large territorial scale. These projects will aim to implement environmental and climate policy and to better integrate such policy aims into other policy areas.
The new regulation also establishes eligibility and the criteria for awards as well as a basis for selecting projects. The programme is open to the participation of third countries and provides for activities outside the EU. It also provides a framework for cooperation with international organisations.
In June 2017, the European Commission will carry out an external and independent mid-term evaluation report and by December 2023 it will complete an ex-post evaluation report covering the implementation and results of the LIFE Programme.
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The adoption of the Single European Act in 1986, which for the first time gave EU environmental policy a firm treaty basis, along with the Fifth Environment Action Programme, approved in 1993, really opened the door for the LIFE funding mechanism. These two developments set the pace of environmental reform for the next decade and the LIFE programme was one of the EU’s essential environmental tools.
During its first phase (LIFE I), which ran from 1992 to 1995, LIFE had a number of components:
The rates of EU assistance for projects ranged from 30 percent for income-generating investments to 100 percent for technical assistance measures. For most projects in the first two categories described above, the level of assistance was limited to 50 percent of project cost. These rates of assistance remained in place through subsequent phases of LIFE.
Detailed priorities were set each year. For example, in 1993, the sustainable development and environmental quality component of LIFE I focused on projects relating to the textile, tannery, paper and agro-food industries; waste reduction and recycling demonstration projects; decontamination of polluted sites; sustainable development in agriculture, transport and tourism; urban transport; and modernisation of environmental monitoring networks. During its lifetime, LIFE I funded a total of 731 projects, rising from 105 in 1992 to a high point of 245 in 1994 (in 1995, slightly fewer - 237 projects - were funded).
The first phase of LIFE was succeeded by LIFE II, also running for four years but with an increased budget of ECU 450 million, covering an enlarged EU (Austria, Finland and Sweden joined in 1995). With LIFE II, the programme was split into three categories - LIFE-Nature, LIFE-Environment and LIFE-Third Countries.
The amended regulation (Regulation (EC) No 1404/96) stated that 46 percent of the programme budget should be dedicated to nature conservation actions - this programme strand became LIFE-Nature. A further 46 percent was dedicated to 'other actions designed to implement EU environment policy and legislation.' This strand of the programme became LIFE-Environment. A third strand (five per cent of the budget) addressed actions in countries on the shores of the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas - later LIFE-Third Countries - and accompanying and technical assistance measures (three per cent of the budget).
The scope of the restructured programme was broad. LIFE-Environment projects had to contribute to innovation or policy implementation in the fields of environmental monitoring, clean technologies, waste management, the identification and rehabilitation of contaminated sites, the integration of environmental concerns in town and country planning, aquatic pollution reduction and the improvement of the urban environment.
The objective was to demonstrate new methods and techniques that would have the potential for pan-European application and would pave the way for implementation of existing policies in different environmental fields, or for the future development of policy. Distinct from LIFE-Nature, LIFE-Environment guidelines were formally foreseen in regulation. This was an important change from LIFE I, during which priorities were set on an annual basis.
LIFE-Nature meanwhile set out specifically to contribute to the implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives, in particular the Natura 2000 network, which promotes the conservation of natural habitats and the habitats of wild fauna and flora while taking into account the economic, social and cultural requirements and specific regional and local characteristics of each Member State.
Nature conservation projects that contributed to maintaining or restoring natural habitats and species populations to a favourable conservation status within the meaning of the Habitats Directive were eligible for financial support. Projects had to target Special Protection Areas or Sites of EU Importance and the species listed in the directives. Projects were chosen purely on their quality and potential conservation impact and not according to national quotas which ensured that only the very best projects were funded every year.
Examples of actions supported include the protection of wolves, bears and bats in Italy, restoration of coastal meadows and wetlands on Baltic Sea islands, and removal of non-native species such as American mink from the Scottish Hebrides.
The objective of LIFE-Third Countries was to contribute to development of environment policy and action programmes in the applicable countries. Projects had to be of interest to the EU, promote sustainable development and provide solutions to major environmental problems.
As LIFE II came to a close in 1999, participation was opened to EU accession countries. The first to get involved was Romania, followed by Slovenia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia. In June 1999, 'LIFE week' was held, bringing together those involved in LIFE projects. This was initially planned as a one-off event but was considered such a success that it led to the European Commission establishing an annual 'Green Week' in Brussels.
The third phase of the LIFE programme ran for a five year period, though it was implemented in four rounds due to late adoption of the legal base. Its budget was increased to €640 million. Under LIFE-Nature, conservation of natural habitats and wild fauna and flora, in particular the Natura 2000 network, was continued. New accompanying measures were introduced to encourage more multinational projects and networking amongst projects (these were the 'starter' measures to support the preparation of projects involving several Member States; and the 'co-op' measures to support the exchange of experience).
In September 2004, with the publication of Regulation (EC) No 1682/2004, LIFE III was extended for a further two years (2005 and 2006), with an additional budget of €317 million. The intention of the extension was to avoid a legal gap between the close of LIFE III at the end of 2004, and the adoption of new EU financial perspectives in 2007. The proposal for an extension of the programme was based on the positive assessment reached in a mid-term evaluation report. Specifically, the report examined the role of the LIFE programme in the implementation and development of European environmental policy and legislation, and the actual management of LIFE III.
In total, between 1992 and 2006, the LIFE programme spent €1.36 billion on 2750 projects covering 40 countries and territories. The total estimated cost of projects to which LIFE contributed financially represented a huge environmental investment in Europe and neighbouring states. Between 1992 and 2006 the total estimated cost of projects supported by LIFE was €4.0 billion. LIFE therefore provided around 38 percent of the total investment, stimulating additional investment in excess of €2 billion up to the end of 2004.
The fourth phase of the LIFE programme, LIFE+ ran from 2007-2013 and had a budget of €2.143 billion. It consisted of three components: LIFE+ Nature and Biodiversity, LIFE+ Environment Policy and Governance, and LIFE+ Information and Communication.
LIFE+ Nature & Biodiversity continued and extended the former LIFE Nature programme. It co-financed best practice or demonstration projects that contribute to the implementation of the Birds and Habitats directives and the Natura 2000 network. It also co-financed innovative or demonstration projects contributing to the implementation of the objectives of Commission Communication (COM (2006) 216 final) on "Halting the loss of biodiversity by 2010 – and beyond". At least 50% of the LIFE+ budget for project co-financing was required to be dedicated to LIFE+ Nature and Biodiversity projects.
LIFE+ Environment Policy & Governance continued and extended the former LIFE Environment programme. It co-financed innovative or pilot projects contributing to the implementation of European environmental policy and the development of innovative policy ideas, technologies, methods and instruments. It also helped monitor pressures (including the long-term monitoring of forests and environmental interactions) on our environment.
LIFE+ Information & Communication was a new component that co-financed projects relating to communication and awareness-raising campaigns on environmental, nature protection or biodiversity conservation issues, as well as projects related to forest fire prevention (awareness raising, special training).
During the late 1980s, public consciousness about environmental threats grew rapidly. Large scale environmental disasters such as the Chernobyl catastrophe focused attention on the need for higher levels of environmental protection. Issues such as the holes in the ozone layer over the poles and global warming prompted an acceleration in European environmental policy-making and institution-building.
However, EU action on the environment can be traced back even earlier. EU financial assistance for nature conservation was first made available in the early 1980s, following on initiatives dating back to the 1970s. From 1972, measures to limit pollution and improve waste management were adopted. Then, 1979 saw the adoption of the Birds Directive, hailed by Birdlife International as 'one of the soundest pieces of bird conservation legislation worldwide'. The directive called for co-financing for the management of Special Protected Areas dedicated to birdlife preservation.
This recognition of the importance of providing financial assistance for habitat protection was taken forward in 1982 when the European Parliament succeeded in introducing a small budget line for nature conservation, enabling financing of a dozen or so projects. This funding was renewed in 1983 and provided support for small-scale, preparatory projects that nevertheless had a significant impact. In respect of the later ACE Regulations (Action Communautaire pour l'Environnement or EU Actions for the Environment), this support was known as pre-ACE.
From the mid-1980s, two Regulations broadened the scope of EU assistance for the environment by establishing the ACE financial instrument. Firstly, Regulation No 1872/84 ran from July 1984 to June 1987 and opened the door for the EU to grant financial support to projects in three fields:
In all, the ACE programme funded 53 nature protection and 55 clean technology projects. The total cost of these projects during the lifetime of the programme (1984-1991) was ECU 98 million, with the EU providing ECU 41 million, or 44.5 percent of the total cost. In addition, a different budget line was made available from 1988 onwards for 'urgent actions for endangered species'. It was not supported by a Regulation but was included in the annual budget of the Commission by the European Parliament. In total, 50 projects were financed with assistance totalling €3 million under this budget.
Running concurrently with ACE were two programmes supporting environmental projects in two specific regions: MEDSPA (Mediterranean), and NORSPA (Northern European maritime regions). MEDSPA ran from 1986 to 1991, supporting 198 projects to the tune of ECU 38 million. Projects financed covered water resources, prevention of water pollution, waste disposal and - more than 25 percent of supported projects - conservation of habitats and endangered species.
NORSPA had a shorter life, running from 1989 to 1991. It was a special fund set up in response to particular concerns about the Northern European maritime regions, and provided ECU 16 million in funding for 38 projects. It prioritised conservation of marine life and integrated management of biotopes, with a particular emphasis on international cooperation and coordination. Projects financed included a programme for return of large migratory species such as salmon to the Rhine, which received nearly ECU 5 million, and re-colonisation of eelgrass in shallow coastal waters around Denmark (EU funding of ECU 252,500).
As the ACE programme concluded in 1991, a separate fund for nature, Actions by the EU for Nature (Council Regulation 3907/91, known as ACNAT) was adopted. This was designed to help support the implementation of the newly adopted Habitats Directive in May 1992 at a time when the EU was expanding its competence in the field of habitat conservation. The intention of ACNAT was that actions for bird species and sites could continue to receive support in the context of the Birds Directive and in addition funds would be made available for the conservation of other endangered species and habitats.
In the event, however, ACNAT was quickly superseded by the adoption of a new, all-encompassing environment fund that targeted five main priority fields. With this fund, and its first-phase budget of ECU 400 million, LIFE I (Council Regulation 1973/92) was born.