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The EU and the environment
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Caring for the environment so we can all enjoy cleaner air, an abundance of natural resources and a protected habitat is one of the European Union’s most important objectives.

Narin Beach, Co. DonegalMother Nature has been taken for granted by past generations and today our planet is under constant threat. The need to protect the world around us is now a critical issue, and it’s one that’s been on the EU agenda for decades.

In fact, many of today’s ideas on safeguarding our natural habitat and resources can be traced back to the European Commission’s first Environmental Action Programme (EAP) which was introduced in November 1973.

The programme was based on the simple premise that economic development, prosperity and protection of the environment are all mutually dependent on each other.

That first EAP included basic principals that still exist today such as the ‘polluter pays’ policy and preventing environmental damage at source.

Under EU law, care of the environment has to considered at all stages of decision making in Europe and member states are obliged to assess the impact on the trade and development of other countries when it comes to environmental policies.

Protection of our natural habitat and resources has been further cemented in the Lisbon Treaty which reinforces and better defines the EU objectives on the environment.

Combating climate change on an international level is now a specific goal of EU environmental policy and sustainable development is enshrined in the treaty as one of the EU’s fundamental objectives in its relations with the wider world.

Climate Change

GlobeIrish physicist John Tyndall was one of the first scientists to prove the earth's natural greenhouse effect. As far back as the 1860s he suggested that slight changes in the Earth’s atmosphere could bring about changes in climate. Little did he know that over the next hundred years or so the Earth’s natural carbon cycle that makes all life possible would be dramatically altered by mankind.

During the 20th century we uprooted millions of acres of forests and pumped billions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere as we became ever more dependent on fossil fuels like oil and coal as sources of energy.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has worked out that the Earth's average surface temperature has risen by 0.76° C since 1850 and, left unchecked, it’s likely to rise by a further 1.8-4.0°C this century.

Drought in AfricaIn the worst case scenario some leading scientists predict it could soar by up to 6.4°C but an increase of even just 2°C may have irreversible and possibly catastrophic consequences for our planet. That means tackling global warming caused by climate change is now one of our biggest challenges. Scientific evidence that global warming is set to cause widespread devastation across our planet is overwhelming, but Europe is leading the way in trying to minimise its impact.

Climate change is taken very seriously by all EU Member States and many of the measures aimed at preventing it have been agreed at three important UN summits in which the European Union played a vital role.

The first of these took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from June 3-14 1992. Unofficially called ‘Earth Summit’, theUnited Nations Conference on Environment and Development produced a treaty aimed at setting limits on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreement that came out of the Brazilian summit laid the groundwork for a second more important treaty signed in Kyoto, Japan, on December, 11 1997.

The Kyoto Protocol was ratified by EU member states in 2002 and finally came into force on February 16 2005. It set legally binding targets for European Union member states and other industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

The targets amount to an average of five per cent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012. In 2007 EU member states agreed to go a step further and committed to an average eight per cent reduction. Under a ‘burden-sharing’ agreement this target is shared between the 15 oldest member states and as Ireland’s industry and population energy needs had increased significantly during the ‘90s, we negotiated an actual increase of 13 per cent above the 1990 level.

Under Kyoto, Ireland's total allowable emissions in the period 2008-2012 works out at an annual average of 62.8 million tonnes. Every year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates the actual emissions for the entire country. The most recent statistics show that Ireland’s total emissions in 2008 were 67.43 million tonnes – a 0.3 per cent reduction on the previous year.

Ireland, like other developed countries signed up to Kyoto, is allowed to offset some of its emissions target by purchasing carbon credits. These credits allow countries to invest in environmental projects in other nations which help reduce the overall amount of greenhouse gases released into the Earth’s atmosphere.

The EU Emissions Trading Scheme also allows member states to allocate national allowances across companies whose factories and plants are major emitters of carbon dioxide like power plants, building products manufacturers and other heavy industrial enterprises.

The Kyoto Protocol was followed up in December 2009 by the Copenhagen Accord which was signed following an 11 day summit in the Danish capital. Despite high hopes that new agreements between developed and developing nations could be reach at the summit, the deal reached fell well short of most expectations and is not yet legally binding. However, it does recognise the need to limit global temperatures rising no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels and promises to deliver $30 billon of aid for developing nations over the next three years.

It also outlines a goal of providing $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor countries cope with the impacts of climate change and it’s hoped the accord will eventually pave the way for a new international agreement on tackling climate change in the future.

The next climate change conference takes place in Mexico in November, 2010.

Fresh air and clean water

Industrial stacksThere’s nothing as pure as fresh air or clean water and while nature provides these life giving elements for free we have to take steps to protect them for future generations.

Levels of air pollution across Europe fell substantially between 1990-97 but since then tiny pollutants from sources like vehicle exhausts and domestic stoves have not reduced significantly. These pollutants - fine particulate matter and ozone - pose a significant danger to health as ongoing exposure can lead to respiratory illnesses and even premature death.

According to the latest European Environment Agency (EEA) data, since 1997 up to 50 per cent of Europe's urban population may have been exposed to concentrations of air pollution above the EU limit set to protect human health. And as many as 61 per cent of city dwellers may have been exposed to levels of ozone that exceed EU targets.

EU policy on addressing the problem is implemented through Environment Action Programmes (EAPs), the first of which was introduced in 1973. Progress has been made through EAPs in tackling air pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and benzene. However, more needs to be done at local, national, European and international level to ensure air quality is protected into the future.

The current sixth EAP was adopted in 2002 and runs until 2012. It includes a clean air strategy that’s part of the European Commission's Clean Air for Europe (CAFE) programme.

In 2008 a new EU Ambient Air Quality Directive was adopted which merged all existing air quality legislation and introduced standards and target dates for reducing certain pollutants. Like all 27 EU member states Ireland has to implement the directive and ensure pollutants don’t exceed specified limits.

Thankfully, Ireland’s air quality remains generally good thanks to our location on the fringe of Western Europe and our mild climate. Those blustery, windy days may be irritating, but they do help keep clean air on the move. We’ve also been active in introducing laws to protect our air quality. In 1990 bituminous coal was banned in Dublin as unacceptably high levels of black smoke were being recorded over the city, particularly in winter. By 2002 black smoke levels in Dublin were down by 70 per cent and the ban had been extended to Cork, Arklow, Drogheda, Dundalk, Limerick, Wexford, Celbridge, Galway, Leixlip, Naas and Waterford.

Over the years a wide range of EU legislation has been introduced which together with our own laws help limit the amount of pollutants pumped into the air over Ireland.

Similar laws help protect our water. As an island nation water quality is especially important to us and it’s maintained with the help of a range of EU directives aimed at protecting fresh and salt water ecosystems and ensuring the water we drink and bathe in is safe. Under the Water Framework Directive introduced in 2000 Ireland is aiming to achieve ‘good water status’ for all our waters by 2015. The directive has sparked a comprehensive programme of activities by the Department of Environment, the EPA, local authorities and other relevant bodies to try and reach this goal.

Protecting Nature

Ireland is home to a fantastic range of natural wildlife. We’ve got over 800 species of flowering plants, about 80 native ferns, over 700 mosses and liverworts, 3,500 fungi, more than 1,000 lichens and 1,400 algae.

There are also 32 land mammals and several species of seals, whales and dolphins have been observed in Irish waters. Add to that the 425 bird species, the 27 types of freshwater fish, thousands of invertebrates and a smattering of amphibians and you can see just how varied our habitat is.

But like our climate, nature is under threat from mankind and that’s why EU member states are so committed to the protection of biodiversity and maintaining ecosystems.

An ambitious plan to halt the loss of biodiversity by 2010 was agreed by EU heads of state at the EU Spring Council in 2001. European Habitats and Birds Directives were used to try and achieve this goal. Under the directives natural conservation areas - known as Natura 2000 sites – were created.

Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) all over Europe were identified for safeguarding. These areas are collectively known as the Natura 2000 network and in Ireland it comprises over 420 sites covering 11,644 sq km of designated land and marine areas.

Scene from the BurrenMost Irish SACs are in the countryside – such as the Burren in Co Clare - although there are some sites in cities and towns like in Dublin Bay and Cork Harbour. SAC areas are selected through the EU Habitats Directive which lists certain habitats and species that must be protected. Irish habitats include raised bogs, active blanket bogs, turloughs, sand dunes, machair (flat sandy plains on the north and west coasts), heaths, lakes, rivers, woodlands, estuaries and sea inlets.

The 25 Irish species which are afforded protection include: Salmon; Otter; Freshwater Pearl Mussel; Bottle-nosed Dolphin; and Killarney Fern.

Ireland also has 132 designated SPAs which were established under the Birds Directive. The Irish SPAs – like Termoncarragh in Co Mayo - offer protection for the rare and vulnerable species of our feathered friends that migrate to and from Ireland.

However, despite co-ordinated efforts across Europe the European Commission had to concede in 2008 that Europe would fail to prevent biodiversity loss by 2010.

The Commission has since set out possible future options for biodiversity policy in the EU for the period after 2010. Proposals include a new long term biodiversity vision running until 2050 with built-in targets for 2020. Under the vision biodiversity and ecosystem services would be preserved, valued and if possible restored.

Discussions on the proposals began in Madrid, Spain, in January 2010 and it’s hoped that a new EU biodiversity strategy will be launched by the end of the year.


Sheeps Head, Co. CorkOur stunning countryside is blessed with a number of beautiful, natural destinations that are ideal for attracting a new, growing band of tourists into Ireland.

Ecotourism is a developing industry and the EU is supporting Irish efforts to provide visitors to our shores with the option of enjoying a holiday to an unspoiled, natural destination without disturbing the environment.

Ireland's first cross-border integrated ecotourism initiative was Greenbox and it covers an area that includes Counties Fermanagh, Leitrim, West Cavan, North Sligo, South Donegal and North West Monaghan.

Greenbox provides training and networking support to local tourism enterprises and organisations that are interested in developing their business in a more environmentally friendly way. The Greenbox project is part financed with European Union funds and it’s one way in which money from Europe is supporting Irish projects that help protect the environment.

Many other initiatives are funded through the EU LIFE+ Programme for environmental projects. Covering the period 2007-2013, LIFE+ provides €1.7 billion for co-funded projects across the EU which are linked to nature conservation.

The LIFE+ National Authority in Ireland is the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government and Irish projects can find out about the next round of funding when it’s announced on the LIFE+ website.

Last update: 02/11/2011  |Top