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| Policy Framework

The concept of sustainable development has come to mean different things to different stakeholders, but the most widely accepted definition is the landmark 1987 Brundtland Commission’s report on ‘Our common future’ – that development meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Even armed with a common definition, the next big challenge for policy-makers is putting the principle into practice.

Sustainable development at the core of EU policy

One of the bedrocks to the development of EU environmental policy has been a document called the ‘European strategy for sustainable development’, which was adopted at the Gothenburg (SE) Summit of European leaders, in 2001, and highlighted the environmental dimension of the ‘Lisbon Strategy’ (see later). For Gothenburg’s sustainable development goals to succeed, it requires the active participation of all stakeholders, including EU institutions, Member States, private and the non-governmental sectors, and local authorities.

Then, in 2002, during the landmark Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, the European Union delivered a persuasive argument in favour of its sustainable development approach. It lent its considerable weight to meaningful action to meet clear, measurable targets, according to a firm timetable and in key areas such as water supply, health and poverty.

Other measures have also been taken across the EU to fall in line with various international conventions, including the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the 1992 UN Convention on biological diversity, and the 1994 UN Convention on combating desertification.

Lisbon Strategy and Barcelona Objective

EU leaders attending the Lisbon Summit in 2000 – a watershed meeting of the Council of Ministers in the Portuguese capital – called for a more integrated approach to policy-making in which economic, social and environmental objectives are achieved at the same time. The underlying aim of the Lisbon Strategy is to make the EU “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010”.

In 2002, at the Barcelona Summit in Spain, European leaders saw that, in order to meet their Lisbon ambitions, they needed to come up with a plan to boost research spending in the Member States. This led to the Commission Communication ‘More research for Europe: towards 3% of GDP’, now better known as the ‘Barcelona Objective’.

Basically, the EU set a target which encourages Member States to increase the percentage of gross domestic product they spend on research and development (R&D) to achieve the 3% objective specified in the Communication. It stressed that the extra investment should be shared between the private and public sectors – 2% coming from the private sector and 1% from the public sector.

Environmental Technology Action Plan (ETAP)

In many ways, innovation and new technologies, such as carbon fuel burning engines and vehicles, have introduced much of the environmental stress the planet is trying to deal with. Ironically, ‘green technologies’ are also seen as the answer to many of these environmental threats. In Europe, despite progress, such technologies are still far from being the norm.

ETAP was created by the Union, at the end January 2004, with the aim of stimulating both the development and deployment of technologies which, in the words of the Commission’s Communication, “reduce pressures on our natural resources, improve the quality of life of European citizens, and stimulate economic growth”. Environmental technologies are not only valid in meeting challenges facing the environment, but also represent a potential boon for EU competitiveness as European research is effectively rolled out into new technologies – giving the Union a leadership position in emerging and innovative fields and complementing its Lisbon ambitions. (see Clean and Competitive brochure below)

European environment and health

A report by the European Environmental Agency shows that as many as 60 000 deaths a year and 25-33% of diseases in industrialised European cities are caused by long-term exposure to air pollution, with children increasingly at risk to asthma and allergies triggered by bad air. To reverse this alarming trend, the European Commission launched, in June 2004, a strategy and action plan – European Environment and Health Strategy – to reduce diseases linked to environmental factors. 

European research must provide key knowledge to better target and implement action and policy-making at EU and national level. The strategy – known by its acronym SCALE – is based on five key elements:

  • Science – to broaden our perspective on the often very complex link between environment and health
  • Children – since they are particularly vulnerable to environmental hazards
  • Awareness-raising – so people know of the environmental-health problems and how they can be solved
  • Legislation – EU regulations will complement national and international initiatives
  • Evaluation – continual verification of how effective the strategy is in reducing known environment-related health problems and addressing new ones as they develop.

The strategy is being implemented in cycles. The first cycle, running from 2004-2010, is focusing on four health effects:

  • Childhood respiratory diseases, asthma, allergies
  • Neurodevelopment disorders
  • Childhood cancer
  • Endocrine disrupting effects

Sixth Environment Action Programme

This vital piece of policy-making marks the territory for EU action in the fields of environmental protection, planning and sustainability. Thanks to Union legislation, significant improvements have been made in areas such as cleaner air and safer drinking water. But much remains to be done.

This latest Action Programme takes a wide-ranging approach to these challenges and gives strategic direction to the Commission’s environmental policy over the next decade, particularly in the enlarged Union. Under the banner ‘Environment 2010: our future, our choice’, the programme identifies four key concerns:

  • Climate change
  • Nature and biodiversity
  • Environment, health and quality of life
  • Natural resources and waste

From this broad base, seven themes were prioritised in the 2002 Council and Parliament Decision on the Programme, namely: clean air for Europe (CAFE); soil protection; sustainable use of pesticides; protect and conserve the marine environment; waste prevention and recycling; sustainable use of natural resources; and urban environment.

Impact Assessment

The Commission launched the Impact Assessment (IA) procedure, in May 2002, to improve the quality and coherence of its policies. IA identifies the likely positive and negative impacts of proposed policy actions, enabling trade-offs and synergies to be identified, and informed political judgements to be made. The IA scheme should contribute to a more coherent implementation of the European strategy for sustainable development.

Impact Assessment involves a systematic analysis of the likely impacts of intervention by public authorities. It is as an integral part of the policy-shaping process, ensuring that decision-makers and the public are made aware of the likely impacts of new policy. But it is meant as an aid to decision-making, not a substitute for political judgements. Indeed, political judgement involves complex considerations which go far beyond the anticipated impacts of a proposal.

Impact Assessments will not necessarily generate clearcut conclusions or recommendations but – through consulting interested parties – it will generate useful discussion and introduce fresh perspective to the debate. When carrying out Impact Assessments, the Commission will seek a broad range of views and be open and transparent in its consultation and communication procedures.

Sustainable development and Kyoto

In December 1997, over 160 nations met in Kyoto, Japan, to negotiate binding limitations on greenhouse gases for developed nations worldwide, as per the objectives of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992. At the end of the meeting, the delegates agreed to a Protocol limiting their emissions relative to the levels emitted in 1990.

EU leaders meeting at the Laeken European Council, in December 2001, reaffirmed the Union’s commitment to the Kyoto Protocol by calling for it to enter into force ahead of the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, in 2002.


The following is a shortlist of EU environmental research policy milestones:

1973 – First European Environment Action Programme (1973-1976) and ‘Protection of the Environment’ Research Programme (1973-1975)

1975 – Directive on the quality of bathing water

1976 – Environment Research Programme (1976-1980)

1977 – Second Environment Action Programme (1977-1981)

1978 – Directive on fresh waters and fish life

1979 – Directive on the conservation of wild birds

1980 – Directive laying down minimum drinking water standards

1981 – Environment, Nuclear Safety and Civil Protection DG founded and launch of Environmental Protection and Climatology research programme

1983 – Third Environmental Action Programme (1982-1986)

1984 – First EU Framework Programme for research (1984-1987)

1986 – Environment Research Programme (1986-1990)

1987 – Single European Act incorporates environmental policy in Treaty of Rome

1987 – Fourth Environmental Action Programme (1987-1991)

1987 – Second EU Framework Programme for research (1987-1991)

1988 – Directive limiting pollution emission from large combustion plants

1989 – Launch of EU’s Marine Science and Technology programme (MAST)

1990 – Directive limiting use and deliberate release of GMOs

1991 – Third EU Framework Programme for research (1991-1994)

1991 – Directive protecting waters against nitrate pollution caused by agricultural run-off

1992 – Directive establishing the Natura 2000 network to protect wild fauna and flora

1992 – Fifth Environment Action Programme (1992-2000)

1993 – Maastricht Treaty gives environmental action full EU policy status

1994 – Fourth EU Framework Programme for research with specific ‘Marine science and technology’ and ‘Environment and climate’ programmes (1994-1998)

1996 – Directive on ambient air-quality assessment and management

1997 – EU adopts Kyoto Protocol

1998 – Fifth EU Framework Programme for research with specific ‘Environment and sustainable development’ programme (1998-2002)

1998 – Directive to increase minimum quality standards of drinking water

1998 – Directive introducing new environmental specifications for petrol and diesel fuels

1999 – EU project clusters on urban mobility and biodiversity set up

1999 – Amsterdam Treaty makes environmental policy a key EU political aim

2000 – Directive establishing framework for EC action in relation to water policy

2001 – Commission publishes Biodiversity Action Plan for Conserving Natural Resources

2002 – Sixth Environment Action Plan

2002 – Sixth EU Framework Programme for research with specific ‘Sustainable development, global change and ecosystems’ programme (2002-2006)


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