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Feature: LIFEnews interview

LIFE in the future - LIFEnews interviews Philip Owen, Head of the LIFE Unit, and Soledad Blanco, Director of International Affairs and LIFE

At the end of the year, Philip Owen, Head of the LIFE Unit and Soledad Blanco, Director of International Affairs and LIFE, reflect on the LIFE programme. They also provide some advice for future LIFE project managers and beneficiaries.  

Soledad Blanco (photo: Michele Lischi - ASTRALE) Soledad Blanco, Director of
International Affairs and LIFE
(photo: Michele Lischi - ASTRALE)

LIFEnews: How important is LIFE for EU environmental policy?

Blanco: Many EU funding programmes have environmental strands: the difference with LIFE is that it is the only one devoted entirely to supporting and developing EU environmental policy. It therefore has a very important role to play in contributing to the implementation, updating and development of Community environmental policy and legislation, in particular regarding the integration of the environment into other policies and to sustainable development in the European Community.

To develop policies that can be successfully applied across the EU it is critically important to have funding from LIFE to be able to test and demonstrate approaches in different contexts.  

LIFEnews: Looking back on 2008, what for you were the highlights of the year in terms of the LIFE programme?

LIFEnews journalist Ed Thorpe meets Philip Owen (photo: EC). Philip Owen, Head of LIFE Unit
(photo: EC)

Owen: The challenge of organising the first LIFE+ call for proposals was clearly a highlight. Dealing simultaneously with the three different strands – Nature & Biodiversity; Environment Policy & Governance; and Information & Communication – was a huge learning process for us.

Biodiversity was something new for us. I am disappointed about how few successful biodiversity projects there were and the reasons for this is certainly something we looked at closely for the 2008 call and we might look at it again for 2009.

November’s LIFE Nature event was another highlight – it was very enjoyable and provided a showcase for successful projects.

(photo: David Pena - ASTRALE) The audience of the EC's LIFE
Nature thematic conference
(photo: David Pena - ASTRALE)

Blanco: The LIFE Nature event proved to be very successful in highlighting good practice, and in facilitating an exchange of ideas, experiences and, importantly, networking between actors in the different thematic areas addressed. This is the kind of initiative that can really help. We plan to have further events of this nature in future. In fact, we are already in the process of planning a LIFE Environment best practice event, focusing on the theme of water, in October 2009.

Owen:  What we are trying to do here is to involve industry to a greater extent. We have a number of innovative processes developed by LIFE projects and we want to try to ensure that these are spread to the water industry.

LIFEnews: In October 2008, the first round of LIFE+ projects was approved. Were you happy with the outcome of this first selection phase and what indications or insights does it provide for future phases of the programme?

Owen: Yes, we are very happy in so far as we got good quality projects, and we met our targets of transnational projects and money spent (i.e. 50% of the money going to Nature & Biodiversity). We also started the new component, Information & Communication, and shared our experience with project monitoring and awareness-raising.

There were not as many biodiversity projects as we would have wished. Information is key to getting more quality projects. We are holding workshops in the Member States, we are speaking to the EC Representations in all the capitals and will be launching a series of information sessions in January with the UK regional offices in Brussels.

What I would really like to do is to extend our customer base. We have a series of good, repeat beneficiaries, especially from the Nature side, but we still need to get to get the word out to involve new actors from different areas. We need to ensure that the private sector and the broader public sector are aware of this funding opportunity. There is a wealth of information available to potential applicants on our website. They should also go to the workshops that will be taken place in June and July 2009 in the different Member States.

LIFEnews: There are some serious challenges now confronting Europe, such as combating and adapting to climate change. How is the LIFE programme evolving in terms of addressing these increasingly urgent issues and what, in your view, will be the specific added value of LIFE+ in this context?

Owen: I think what is of interest is the politics behind this. The European Parliament and the Council will allocate an extra EUR 25 million to LIFE+ for the programme in 2009, which is a 10% increase. The European Parliament would like to see this money being spent on measures to adapt to climate change. We will be amending our guidance for the 2009 call for proposals in line with the parts of the Parliament’s wishes that we can accommodate - aspects such as corridors for species to migrate, seed-growing techniques for species for arid conditions. Clearly, this is LIFE’s very small contribution in what is a much greater and much more expensive topic than LIFE can ever possibly finance.

Blanco: The increase in the LIFE+ budget, as compared with the LIFE III budget, is in my view a clear reflection of the desire among political leaders to strengthen the role of LIFE in contributing to EU environment policy. On cannot say with certainty what the outcome of the negotiations on the next Financial Perspective will be, but I think it is clear, and there is general agreement that environment issues are an important priority.

There is no doubt that environment policy has moved up the agenda. This presents us with a real opportunity to foster a real engagement and commitment to addressing environment issues in Europe. But it also presents us with a very important responsibility. The issues we face are serious and in the coming years we need to ensure that our environment policy is effective and delivers real results. I am confident, however, that this can be achieved and there is widespread support within the Commission for a strong environment policy. But the Commission cannot act alone and the support and cooperation of the Member States is also critically important, as is the engagement of LIFE project managers and applicants.

LIFEnews: What are the important milestones for LIFE+ in the coming year and what are your own priorities for the programme?

LIFEnews journalist Ed Thorpe meets Philip Owen (photo: EC). The LIFE Unit looks forward to a
challenging and exciting year 2009
(photo: EC)

Owen: 2009 will be even more exciting and challenging than 2008, as we will have two selection rounds for LIFE+. In order to catch up following the late adoption of the programme in 2007, the selection of 2008 projects will start in January, then the 2009 call will be launched in May and project selection will start in October / November 2009.

Next year we will also have the Court of Auditors report on the sustainability of our LIFE Nature projects, and an ex-post evaluation of LIFE between 1996-2006, both of these will teach us what we have to do and what we have to adapt. Something we are already aware of and are working on is to enhance our communication activities, specifically on a thematic basis and to also involving the Member States, if possible, to a greater extent.

Blanco: Successful communication must utilise a wide range of tools and we have been working hard in recent years to develop a comprehensive website, including a database of all closed LIFE projects, a range of thematic publications, etc. We hope that these will continue provide a source of best practices and motivate others to participate. As we now go forward with LIFE+ I hope that we can count on the commitment and ideas of LIFE projects managers and applicants so that together we can make a difference.

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